The changing face of grocery shopping

By on March 6, 2019

Lititz Record correspondent Art Petrosemolo from New Holland has spent several weeks researching exploring and shopping in the area’s many local discount grocery stores. In a three part-series, he shares some of his findings about this national phenomenon which has a strong presence in Lancaster County.

Part 1 of a 3 part series
The retail grocery business has changed. It is a far cry from what you remembered as a child heading to the supermarket with your mom. And changes continue; the business today isn’t what it will become in the next few years.

Talking to store owners, suppliers and shoppers confirms what you probably already know: there are lots of food shopping options in 2019 and shopping can be both a challenge and an adventure.
The word grocery has been in use in the United States since the 19th century. The word’s origin is French from gros meaning “one who sells in large quantities,” and the definition holds true into the 21st century.

Today, two working adult parents can be the norm in modern families, leaving little time for a sit down evening meal. Working mothers aren’t always filling grocery baskets weekly with food for planned meals, but often shop as needed.

Also, school children can have activities or athletic practices that may extend into early evening and dinner can be “catch as catch can,” with leftovers, takeout, prepared meals, on-line meal delivery, or even a stop at a fast-food drive through.

Pumpkins fill Leola Produce Auction during an October sale.

So, with family eating habits changing, traditional grocery stores — where moms use to shop for a week’s worth of dinners — have had to change too.

Add to this, says Cory Ober of Eby’s General Store near Ephrata, many young women haven’t learned, or wanted, to cook in the way their mothers and grandmothers have.

“At times, they pick up already prepared entrees and prepare vegetables to complement it for the family dinner,” he says. “That’s just the way it is, and we have had to adapt.”

Finally, with a strong economy and more disposable income, research shows families are eating out more often than they have in recent years.

So, how has this affected the grocery business especially the growing discount grocery scene? I investigated what it looks like today in Lancaster County, and where is it going.
Several of the men and women who own or run grocery stores in our area took time to talk to me about the businesses. We discussed the discount grocery phenomenon: stores selling more prepared foods for easy meal preparation, both ready to eat and frozen; the affect of the internet with on-line grocery ordering for pick-up or delivery; as well as on-line ordered, fresh meal options from companies like Blue Apron.

Jonah and Tonja Dodd of Ebenezer’s in Ephrata in front of their meat counter.

With everyone, even many in the Plain Community, browsing the internet for purchases, it didn’t take long before internet businesses sprung up and grocery chains added on-line ordering for store pick-up or delivery like Amazon Pantry, Peapod and Walmart Grocery Pickup. Companies like Blue Apron, Home Chef, e-meals, and others, have popped up and will send you fresh meals from their website with all the ingredients and instructions so you can prepare them without purchasing anything at the market.

Add to the mix, especially here in Lancaster County, the multitude of farm markets and home growers who sell fresh produce seasonally from roadside stands. And finally, there are an unusually high number of discount grocers in the area giving shoppers more choices than ever. Today’s discounters don’t just sell salvage goods as they did when these businesses got started years ago. They stock staples, frozen items, fresh produce, paper goods and some even have fresh and deli meats at deep discounts

Brick and mortar
Let’s first look at the brick and mortar stores selling groceries, produce, and meats here in our area, as well as all the unique Lancaster County options.

Like any community, we have large national and regional markets. including Redner’s, Giant, Wegman’s, and Weis. We also have family owned chains like Musser’s, Martin’s and Darrenkamp’s as well as large, family owned stores like Yoder’s and Shady Maple. All are full-service operations with loyal shoppers, and today continue to adjust to the buying needs of their customers.

Cory and Nicole Ober, owners of Eby’s General Store in Ephrata.

Shoppers have always had one or two stores they favor, either for convenience, price or selection, and that’s where they usually find most of their staples, canned goods, and probably some meat, fish and poultry. These stores have daily, weekly and monthly specials, advertising budgets for print or on-line ads, coupons and sometimes sell “loss leaders” like name brand soup &tstr; for less than a smaller local store can purchase it — to attract customers. At least for the foreseeable future, these stores are not going away, certainly not in my lifetime.

Lancaster County also has year-round farmers’ markets, from Central Market (the country’s oldest) in Lancaster City to markets in Ephrata (Green Dragon), Roots (Manheim), and Bird-In-Hand (Bird-In-Hand) among others not too distant where farmers sell local produce in-season as well as fresh produce year-round, plus meats, poultry, and a myriad of stuff that just seems to be part of the farmers’ market experience.

And living in farm country, we also have lots of other options. In season, we buy fruits and vegetables from farm stores and roadside stands. Large, wholesale produce sites like Weaverland

Produce Auction in New Holland and Leola Produce Market in Leola sell what our local farmers’ grow, both to farm stores, as well as local and regional supermarkets. So, you may eat corn that was picked in the morning and sold at a farm stand near your home in the afternoon. Or, you may have purchased corn at one of the local, family owned markets and it could have been grown on the same farm and purchased at one of the wholesale auctions.

And for some reason, maybe it’s in our genes, everyone in Lancaster County loves a bargain. If they didn’t, weekly auctions, yard sales and spring mud sales would not be so popular. To meet that desire for a bargain in the grocery business, a number of family owned and a few national discount chain stores have located in the county and they each have a “niche” which they hope makes them unique or special to their customer base.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net. 

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