As big supermarkets struggle, a new crop of local grocery stores are innovating to serve niche audiences and advance social causes. Maj. Gene Hogg, the Salvation Army’s commander for central Maryland, organized mobile kitchens after the twin towers fell in Manhattan and the levees broke in New Orleans. He fed protesters and police officers during the riots that erupted here in 2015 after a young man named Freddie Gray died of injuries he received while in the back of a police van. More than 200 businesses were destroyed, many of them places where people bought food.
Once the city calmed down, he pondered his next move. After three days of prayer and fasting, Mr. Hogg had an answer.
“God said I needed to open a grocery store,” he said.
It wasn’t exactly what he had hoped to hear. What Mr. Hogg, 56, knew about grocery stores he could have scribbled on the back of receipt.
Now, three years later, he can talk about produce and Pop-Tarts like a pro. On a recent Friday afternoon he bounded around the aisles of DMG Foods, a bright, 7,000-square-foot, nonprofit grocery store, showing a customer with a baby how to print a coupon and encouraging another to try the freshly ground chicken.
The market, which opened in March in a working-class neighborhood three miles from where the riots began, is one of a growing number of experimental grocery stores that have emerged as traditional supermarkets confront a crisis that industry analysts say could surpass the retail apocalypse that pounded shopping malls a decade ago.
Most North Americans still buy their food at the classic supermarket, with its wide aisles and seemingly limitless choices. But stores like Kroger, the nation’s largest chain with more than $105 billion in sales in 2017, are being cannibalized by a host of discount competitors like Dollar General and Aldion one side, and by the growing dominance of Amazon and online delivery on the other.
“By and large, supermarkets are kind of behind the eight ball” in responding to changes in how people shop, said Diana Smith, the associate director of retail and apparel for the market research company Mintel.
Customers, especially younger ones, want stores that offer what some industry analysts have come to call “food experiences,” with craft beer on tap, meals to go and vegetable butchers. They tend to shop only when they cook, visiting more than one store to collect ingredients, rather than making a weekly trip to stock the pantry with toilet paper, chuck roast and gallons of milk.
Large chains are throwing everything they can at the problem, planning smaller stores customized for different demographics. Kroger, which already sells clothes at some of its stores, has developed a grab-and-go fashion line called Dip, and is testing driverless delivery. The Midwestern chain Hy-Vee is adding medical clinics and spa-inspired bath boutiques to its stores.
But some of the most radical reinvention is happening at the local level, in both cities and small towns, where a new breed of small community stores use the grocery aisles to fill cultural niches and address social needs.
“There’s a lot of innovation that is geared toward bringing people together and back to their food, which is the opposite of the order-your-food-online thing,” said Brianne Miller, 30, the founder and chief operating officer of Nada, a package-free grocery store she opened in June near downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, with her business partner, Paula Amiama.
At Nada, everything, including toothpaste and chocolate, is sold package-free. Shoppers can buy scoops of frozen berries, a handful of crackers and just one egg, if that’s all they need. There’s no plastic wrap or paper at the deli counter. Customers bring their own containers, buy reusable ones at the store or take some from a stack that have been cleaned and sanitized, using a digital scale to weigh and tag them before they start shopping.
The store won’t be equipped to sell fresh meat, but will soon add cured meats and more frozen seafood (caught in a sustainable way, of course). Suppliers, too, have to be willing to reduce waste: A local coffee roaster, for example, delivers beans in refillable bulk containers.