DC's Long Grocery Lines

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DC local news site TBD launches today, with a great article by friend Sommer Mathis on why DC grocery stores are so crowded.  Partly it's that they're hard to site here--grocery chains tend to look for giant suburban-style footprints, rather than the stripped down walkable retail that the city is designed for.  And partly it's that DC is a very young, very single city, which presents a classic operations queuing problem:


See, you city folk shop differently than your suburban brothers and sisters. You want to be able to buy only as many items as you can carry or take on the bus, which means you need to go to the store more often.

"In an urban store, you definitely have higher traffic counts and lower basket amounts," says Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for the Eastern Division at Safeway Inc., which operates the largest number of full-service grocery stores inside the District. "People shop at the store more frequently just to get a few items. To achieve the same volume [in terms of sales], you have to serve a lot more individual shoppers."

Not only that, but more of you are single, and buy food only for yourselves. If only you'd all just get married already and consolidate into larger household sizes, there'd be fewer individual people tasked with food shopping, which would also help make stores less crowded.

"In D.C.'s urban environment there have always been a lot of young people, young professionals with busy lives, perhaps not a car or easy access to travel," says William Frey, a demographer specializing in urban populations at the Brookings Institute here in Washington. "It surprises me that the grocery stores haven't kept up with that."

And according to the numbers, it's only getting worse. The U.S. Census estimates that in 2008, fully 47.1 percent of District households, over 117,000 of you, were single people living alone, compared to 43 percent in 2000.

(The singles explosion isn't the only thing that grocers haven't kept up with. A recent report [PDF] co-authored by D.C. Hunger Solutions and Social Compact analyzed what they've termed the "grocery gap" in the District of Columbia, identifying those under-retailed areas that amount to the urban planning buzzterm of the moment, "food deserts.")

These factors combine to make the difficult job of managing the customer experience at an urban supermarket even harder. Who among us hasn't thrown up our hands at the sight of crazy-long lines but only half of the checkout lanes manned? Or participated in that peculiar-to-D.C. ritual of bagging all your own groceries, because there's only one bagger for three different lanes? Or no baggers at all?

Controlling for unforeseen circumstances like multiple employees calling in sick, situations like these are endemic to many supermarkets in the District, thanks to the way corporate chains allocate resources to individual stores. The number of staff hours a manager has to work with has a direct correlation to the number of items sold, or sales volume, of a given store. So if your customers are largely single urban dwellers who only buy a few items at a time and clog up the aisles and contribute to long lines, it's way more difficult to increase that crucial item count.

"This creates a situation where the budgets are skewed," explains Ron Makawa, a former front-end manager for Giant Food who worked at a number of stores in the D.C. area, including in Silver Spring and at the O Street Giant in Shaw. "In Shaw, the item count is not actually reflective of the amount of people who are going into the store."

My understanding is that more people takes a lot more grocery line time than more items--someone has to have something like 47 an extra 17 items before they're as slow as two people with a few items.  The area where I grew up in New York solves this problem by having a lot of small supermarkets--one every 4-5 blocks, plus bodegas and Korean vegetable markets on many corners.  But either the chains that are in this market don't know how to handle that form factor, or the zoning can't handle it, or DC's lower density won't support it--I suspect it's a combination of the three.  But it does make it frustrating to shop here.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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