The Whole Foods at 2200 Westlake in Seattle, which won
a ULI Award for Excellence. The distribution of grocery stores
by population in the Seattle/King County area suggests that
any new project or development with 1,200 residential units
or more could support a grocery store. 

The topics of food and eating are no longer reserved for the Lifestyle section of local newspapers or for magazines like Good Housekeeping. National awareness of food distribution and production has been fueled in part by documentaries like Food, Inc. and bestselling books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. As a result, consumers are demanding more organic produce, humanely produced meat, and similar food choices. But this is only part of the story. Changing demographics also play a role. In a 2010 article in Planning, urban planners Mark Hinshaw and Brian Vanneman wrote that bringing food and access to food to the forefront of urban design and planning may help real estate professionals rethink the neighborhood of the 21st century.

Little is known about how we use grocery stores. The Journal of Planning Education and Research noted that grocery stores and restaurants hold no special status under most local planning regulations. Unlike liquor stores or sex shops, for instance, they fall into the common category of commercial zoning. Some jurisdictions have attempted to restrain the alleged negative impacts of fast food chains on the quality of their environment, and more recently, to limit the size of retail stores, some of which sell food. At the same time, planners have long taken notice that the growth of national supermarket chains and the related increase in the size of facilities selling food have corresponded to the disappearance of supermarkets and grocery stores from urban areas where low-income populations live. They have observed that reduced access to food has created so-called food deserts, which along with food security have become the subject of renewed attention.

When thinking about what constitutes a good neighborhood, planners have yet to assign food and eating the same prominence as transportation, open space, and housing mix. But public health officials and various government agencies are starting to call for action.

As more research on grocery stores is conducted, planning researchers are discovering that the image of a station wagon (or perhaps a minivan or sport-utility vehicle) packed with grocery bags is no longer valid. A recent University of Washington study of 329 grocery stores in the Seattle/King County metropolitan area discovered that 17 percent of the 2,616 shoppers in 12 grocery stores observed leaving with their purchases departed on foot rather than in a car. This number varied greatly according to the location of the store, with 23 percent leaving the store on foot in urban areas and 12.7 percent walking away in suburban areas.

More surprising, 38 percent of the shoppers left the grocery store with no grocery bags, 31 percent left with one grocery bag, 14 percent left with two bags, and only 7 percent left with more than two bags. Again, the results varied by location, with urban shoppers leaving the store with an average of 1.25 bags and suburban shoppers leaving the store with 1.46 bags. As might be expected, people who left the store in cars left with more bags—an average of 1.47—than those who left on foot, with 0.83 bags.

Another study, led by Baylor College of Medicine professor Sunmi Yoo, found that of 823 people surveyed in the Houston metropolitan area, 49 percent went to the grocery store at least twice a week.

These results are at odds with assumptions commonly made by urban planners and real estate professionals—that trips to the grocery store are infrequent (once a week or even less), that driving is the only mode of travel to the store, and that the amount of goods purchased requires use of a car.

Although the results from these studies contradict assumptions, they are supported in part by the food industry. In 2007, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) reported that sales per customer transaction averaged $28.88. Spending this amount perhaps would fill up to two grocery bags, the weight of which would make a walk of ten minutes or less manageable for many people. The FMI also recorded that customers made an average of 1.9 trips per week to the supermarket that same year.

These figures, which are followed by the industry itself for policy and planning purposes, were aggregated nationally, so they include rural, suburban, and urban areas. Because distances to grocery stores are the greatest in rural areas and therefore people are likely to make fewer trips to grocery stores there, aggregating these figures skews the data in favor of rural areas. The FMI data further indicate that the assumptions about how grocery stores are being used and the frequency of their use are incorrect.

Several demographic changes might explain the shifting food acquisition habits. Decreasing household size is likely the primary reason why the once-a-week trip with the minivan is no longer the norm for food shopping. At the same time, the number of households with two wage earners has increased, meaning people have less time to prepare food and clean up after meals.

The American Dietetic Association notes that many “home-cooked” meals now come prewashed, precooked, prebaked, preprocessed, and presliced. Evidence of this phenomenon is the notable growth of deli sections in supermarkets, many of which now have seating sections and act as de facto restaurants. The 1953 appearance of the TV dinner heralded the era of convenience foods, and today people spend much less time preparing their own meals. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals found that people now eat 25 percent of their calories away from home or in meals prepared by other people. Given today’s smaller families and hurried adults, meals eaten outside the home also might fill the need for entertainment and relaxation away from household work—which can be considered to include food preparation.

Purchases of food might be going the same direction as clothes—no longer homemade, but instead created to satisfy different shades of taste, sophistication, and cost. The evidence is starting to point to smaller purchases at and more frequent visits to the grocery store, and fewer people using cars to take their groceries home.

These findings suggest it is time to rethink the grocery store. Locating stores within walking distance of the maximum number of homes is one way of responding to these changing patterns. Research has found that neighborhoods with higher densities are more walkable and that density is often linked to higher land prices. Therefore, grocery stores located in walkable neighborhoods will most likely have to be smaller than those in less dense and less walkable neighborhoods.

The University of Washington study calculated the standard market area for grocery stores, discovering that given an average of 2.39 persons per household in King County (based on 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data), the region averages 2,500 to 4,800 people per grocery store. The study also found that in the area where half of King County’s population resides, there were only 1,200 households per grocery store. It is important to note that these figures relate to “working” grocery stores and supermarkets, which exist alongside convenience stores, warehouse stores, and big-box retail stores that all draw from the same population. By contrast, data from FMI and the U.S. Census Bureau show that there is an average of 8,800 residents per supermarket nationwide. Yet, the distribution of grocery stores by population in the Seattle/King County area suggests that any new project or development with 1,200 residential units or more could, in fact, support a grocery store.

What would be an appropriate size for a grocery store serving 1,200 or 2,000 residential units or households? Over the past decade, the industry has argued that 60,000 square feet (5,600 sq m) is the most advantageous size for a store in terms of profits. The FMI has observed that grocery stores nationwide have increased dramatically in size, from an average of 18,000 square feet (1,700 sq m) in 1980s to between 30,000 and 45,000 square feet (3,800 and 4,200 sq m) in 2000. In 2007, the FMI noted that the median store size was 47,500 square feet (4,400 sq m).

One reason for the larger stores may be increases in the number of items carried by each store. According to the FMI, stores carried an average of 45,000 items in 2007, and in 2009 this number jumped to 48,750. Indeed, the 60,000-square-foot (5,600-sq-m) grocery store is practically a mini–neighborhood center, containing such amenities as drug stores, coffee shops, and even hardware stores. Putting nonfood products together with food products under one roof has led to the increase in size, which, in turn, requires larger market areas and customer populations.

Notably, the industry itself appears to be in the process of revising its standards for store size and is experimenting with small, neighborhood-based stores. Industry magazine Chain Store Age noted that in March 2010, the president and CEO of Wal-Mart U.S., Bill Simon, announced at an investor conference that Wal-Mart had plans to open hundreds of small stores in the next few years. Called Walmart Markets or Express stores, these shops will be less than 60,000 square feet (5,574 square meters) in size and located in neighborhoods such as Chicago’s South Side and on university campuses. Simon believes that there are thousands of potential sites for the smaller stores across the country.

While information about a reversed trend toward smaller grocery stores is proprietary and difficult to document, the actions of an industry leader such as Wal-Mart indicate that changes are on the horizon. Such changes could make groceries as easily accessible as convenience stores or even Starbucks outlets. It appears that food shopping habits are changing, and the changes will have a profound effect on real estate trends in the coming years.