Once, bars were bars and grocery stores sold groceries. You could not drink a pint at the grocery store, and you could not buy a pound of Vidalia onions at a bar. Those times are behind us.
Now, grocery stores across the nation — and not just fancy, racehorse grocery stores like Whole Foods, but regular, workhorse grocery stores like Kroger — are adding bars to their locations, in the hopes of inspiring shoppers to linger over conversation or the cheese aisle.
The bars are not alone. For the better part of the past decade, grocery stores have been undergoing a slow morph, from stores selling groceries to multi-pronged retail experiences. This is not so much an identity crisis as an exploration of purpose: What, in 2018, is the grocery store for?
The case for the grocery store bar
“Grocery Stores Invite Shoppers to Drink While They Shop,” announced the Wall Street Journal, which, in 2016, identified in-store boozing as “the latest step in efforts by supermarkets, a famously low-margin business, to make more money by keeping shoppers in their stores longer and getting them to spend more while they are there.”
It makes intuitive sense. If you swing by the grocery bar for a drink, would you not, maybe, pick up some pasta sauce while you’re there? And if you stop to buy pasta sauce, wouldn’t it be nice to also treat yourself to an IPA? And would you not, perhaps, be more inclined to linger in the aisles — and make more (and more impulsive) purchases — if you were sipping a nice Malbec while you pushed your cart through the store, as some bar-slash-supermarkets (superbarkets) allow?
In a tip for the New York Times, writer Beca Grimm suggested the grocery store bar as a kind of life hack. “One of the keys to fitting socializing into a slammed schedule is to find ways to hit multiple activities at a time,” she wrote. Catch up over a beer with a friend andattend to your grocery list. It is a practical solution to the plight of modern life.
In 2018, it’s great to be a grocery shopper, but it’s harder than ever to be a grocery store
It is also — grocery stores hope — a practical solution for attracting customers in an age of fierce competition. As Grub Street observed earlier this year, “it’s a bad time to be in the business of selling groceries, and the headlines are as bleak as you’d expect,” citing one apocalyptic prediction after another.
“There is enormous pressure to charge a value price while also providing quality and service and the exact products that people want, when and where they want them,” Bill Urda, a senior retail analyst at Boston Consulting Group, told the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Post explains, people are “spending more of their food budget on restaurant meals and takeout,” while new competitors keep devouring chunks of the market, from German-based discount grocer Lidl, which came stateside in 2017, to big-box stores like Target.
And then there is the constant threat of the internet. Despite the increase in grocery delivery options, which only accelerated last year when Amazon acquired Whole Foods, delivery is still not the way most people get groceries. But it could be.
“Grocery is the largest category within U.S. retail and it is also one of the least penetrated online,” said D1 Capital’s Daniel Sundheim, after the firm led a $600 million round of funding for Instacart, an online grocery delivery service. “The industry is at a tipping point and there will likely be a significant acceleration in the adoption of online ordering for grocery delivery over the next few years.” And while they would say that, it’s not exactly a radical proposition: The Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen predict that by 2024, 70 percent of consumers will be grocery shopping online, accounting for 20 percent of total grocery sales.
(Anecdotally: Last month, I bought my first online groceries because I got a promotion in the mail and also wanted several cans of diced tomatoes. I had never done that before, and now I have, so I think we can all agree the acceleration is real.)
That means the race is on, to lure customers into the stores in the first place and to boost sales once they’re there. This is the promise of the grocerbar.
Alcohol: a social lubricant, and a shopping one
To be clear, in-store drinking opportunities are not a new phenomenon. Whole Foods opened its first in-store bar in 2009, and as of October 2017, more than 200 of their stores sell full in-store pours, according to Draft, a magazine devoted to the industry. The same year, DeCicco & Sons, a small chain in New York, became the first supermarket in the state to build a bar in one of its stores; at the time, competitors “thought we were crazy,” co-owner Chris DeCicco told Grocery Dive.
They likely don’t think that anymore. As Grocery Dive’s Jeff Wells points out, the bars are a “natural outgrowth” of an increasing interest in craft beer and wine. “Craft beer has grown by double-digit percentages over the past several years, and now commands more than 22% of all beer sales. Wine represents a $39 billion industry that saw 4% sales growth in just the past year,” he reported. (That was in 2017; this year, the percentage is up to 5). Why not capitalize on the interest? “The same customers who buy bottles from the wine and beer department, retailers reason, are likely to appreciate fresh pours and the opportunity to try new varieties.”
But if changing tastes — one might even say increased connoisseurship — makes bars a good bet for grocers, the real engine driving grocerbars isn’t really about booze at all, Steve Thomas, the chief marketing officer with the in-store marketing consultancy Windsor Marketing Group, told Food Dive. It’s about groceries. “The bigger aspect of this is, the longer you keep someone in your store, the higher chance you have of them spending more money,” he said.
You can buy groceries online, but you can’t buy community — or a beer flight
It’s not just in-store bars: brick-and-mortar supermarkets are introducing all kinds of new concepts to entice customers to come by and stay a while. The superbarket is, in many ways, a natural extension of the grocerant — the grocery store that also serves hot, restaurant-style meals. At some Whole Foods, Eater noted in its explication of the phenomenon, internal tap rooms host trivia nights. A Chicago location of the Midwestern chain Mariano’s hosts “Sunday mimosa parties.”
And it’s not just alcohol, either. A Whole Foods in Augusta, Georgia, has a putting green, the WSJ reports. One in Boston has a spa. There’s a ShopRite outside of New York City with an in-store fitness studio offering barre and yoga classes. A different Wall Street Journal article, heralding grocery stores as new local hot spots, focuses not on how grocery stores are becoming bars but on how they’re replacing them. According to the paper, “parents now bring their children here to play, retirees gather for Bingo, and singles find romance.”
Is that true? Certainly, grocery stores want it to be. A decline in more traditional gathering places — ones without meat counters — is an opportunity for supermarkets, which are eager, or desperate, to pick up the slack. You can’t meet with your crafting circle on the internet, but you can go to a grocery store that has introduced a communal table for exactly that purpose.
It’s a mirror of what’s happening in other spaces, like movie theaters, which are also expanding beyond their traditional role — showing movies — to offer full-service, upscale food and drink menus. “In the age of streaming, for most people, a trip to the theater isn’t just an excuse to watch a movie,” wrote Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson. “It’s an excursion, a night out, an event.”
There are, of course, skeptics. Writing at October, Tobias Carroll expresses doubts that the superbarket could ever be as satisfying as the classic: “Reducing a bar to its most basic components” — that is, the booze — “and using it as an incentive for something else defeats one of the essential purposes of a bar.” The sense of community, of solidarity with strangers — that’s not the point of the grocerbar, he argues, because a grocerbar exists, above all, to sell groceries.
But then, the grocerbar’s real competition isn’t really your local watering hole — at least, not yet. It’s Instacart; it’s Amazon; it’s FreshDirect. And retailers hope that turning grocery shopping into an experience will be enough for you — for me, for all of us — to put on pants.