March 2009 Issue

Small Stores, Big Changes
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 3 P. 32

Getting in and out fast ... with fresh, affordable options suitable for a whole healthy meal? Accomplishing both tasks may be possible, thanks to the emergence of trimmed-down food markets.

The age of supersizing may be coming to an end. With the rising popularity of the Smart Car—at only 8.8 feet in length, two Smart Cars could fit in one average parking space—and the trend toward building smaller homes, Americans are becoming more interested in downsizing than ever before. It’s a big change from the past decade, during which everything appeared to be expanding in size—from oversized homes (nicknamed “McMansions” in the real estate industry) to mega retail locations and enormous vehicles such as the Hummer. But it’s starting to seem excessive, and the state of the economy may be just one reason for the shift toward downsizing.

Recently, the trend has influenced the construction of new, smaller grocery stores. Tesco, a British retailer, has opened a variety of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores in California, Nevada, and Arizona. At only 10,000 square feet, they are miniature compared with the 85,000-square-foot grocery stores most shoppers are used to seeing. Mega-retailer Wal-Mart has also gotten on board with the trend by opening three 15,000-square-foot stores in Phoenix. In southern California, Safeway has opened a smaller version of its grocery store. Even those who don’t have concrete plans underway are at least considering the change. Whole Foods Market, for example, has been discussing the possible construction of a smaller version of its popular grocery store.

One of the primary reasons for the change is convenience. The modern-day consumer has a BlackBerry full of things to do and doesn’t want to waste valuable time in the grocery store. “Today’s average supermarket has around 40,000 products, and in the past few years, consumers have started complaining that there are too many choices,” says Phil Lempert, editor of, a Web site that tracks retail trends. “The problem is that even with all the choices, there isn’t a lot of variety. For example, there might be 10 different brands of peanut butter on the shelves, but only two are really all that different.”

With the introduction of smaller grocery stores, the shopping experience is faster for today’s busy consumer. There aren’t as many brands available or aisles to peruse, and this allows for quick decisions. It’s a grab-and-go mentality. Consequently, these stores are focusing on ready-made meals that don’t require a lot of preparation. “These new, smaller stores may indeed be the answer to quicker shopping, but it’s important they still provide healthy, good-quality options instead of traditional ‘fast food’ or processed items like fried foods, trans fat-laden baked items, or sugary beverages,” says April Rudat, MS Ed, RD, LDN, a nutrition speaker and an educator based in northeastern Pennsylvania and the author of Oh Yes You Can Breastfeed Twins!

In fact, most of these stores are packed with quick but healthy choices, such as sushi, rotisserie chicken, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. While the idea of convenience food used to be automatically associated with being unhealthy, that’s not the case anymore. “The emphasis [of these smaller stores] is on fresh and easy foods,” says Lempert. “In fact, Wal-Mart’s venue is about 50% fresh foods. It’s clearly focused on healthier options.”

“To be competitive, many of these smaller markets are offering healthy premade meals,” says Lisa Bunce, MS, RD, owner of Back to Basics Nutrition Consulting in Redding, Conn. “The one in my area offers rotisserie chicken, baked salmon, pot roast, lean flank steak, a tofu dish, and sushi. Rounding these protein sources out with some quick-cooking quinoa or brown rice and some frozen vegetables allows individuals to put together a healthful meal in a short amount of time, with little cleanup required.”

Change on the Horizon
Of course, smaller stores are nothing new. “There have always been smaller stores around,” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical associate professor at Boston University Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the author of Nutrition & You. “Decades ago, we called them ‘convenience stores.’ It was the place you ran to for a quart of milk, somewhere you could go in a pinch.”

But what has changed is that these smaller grocery stores are geared toward customers who want to bring home a full dinner, not just grab an item they forgot at the grocery store. And that’s why the selection is so important. “The key is really the quality of what’s being offered,” continues Salge Blake. “What kind of foods are there? A store like Trader Joe’s is wonderful. The beauty of the smaller size of Trader Joe’s is that you can get in and out fast, but it’s also quality food. You can get whole grains and fruits and vegetables, both frozen and fresh. And you can get lean dairy and fresh meat there, too.”

That’s the idea that these newer grocery stores are trying to follow, and it could make healthy eating easier for shoppers. “The average person shops 2.2 times per week,” says Lempert. “But if we take the European model of people shopping almost every day at small markets they can walk to and bring it to the U.S., those people might shop healthier. For one, they’re more likely to get fresh food every day because it won’t go bad. Plus, now they might be walking to their local store, so people are getting up and moving more, too. Maybe it could eventually even eliminate some of these problems that Americans have because of bad diets and not enough exercise, such as diabetes or heart conditions.”

However, whether people choose to shop at these new grocery stores may depend on the prices, says Salge Blake. “In these economic times, we have to help the consumer find healthy foods on a budget. I don’t want them to have to pay a higher price for convenience,” she notes.

Marjorie Geiser, RD, NSCA-CPT, author of Just Jump: The No-Fear Business Start-Up Guide for Health and Fitness Professionals, agrees: “Consumers are paying closer attention to cost today. Will they pay more for convenience? A year ago, it may not have mattered, but today it does. Reports indicate that organic foods have seen a huge drop due to their increased price.”

Fortunately, Lempert says these smaller grocery stores will likely be competitive with, if not cheaper than, their larger counterparts. “The only model that’s been around long enough to examine is Tesco’s Fresh & Easy, but their prices are comparative to supermarket prices or even below. Because the overhead involved in running these smaller stores is so much less—they can operate with six employees instead of the 200 or 300 it takes to run a supermarket—they can afford to keep their prices low.”

Helping Clients Make Healthy Choices
No matter where clients buy food, there will always be unhealthy options available that may make it challenging for them to maintain a balanced diet. Dietitians should be prepared to help clients who want fast but healthy meal options. “Our job as registered dietitians is to take our knowledge of nutrition and fit it into the consumer’s busy lifestyle,” says Salge Blake. “We need to be aware of what’s going on with the latest trends—like smaller grocery stores—and help them make the best decisions.”

Eating healthy is all about choices, adds Andrea Dillaway-Huber, PhD, RD, LDN, who practices in Wyomissing, Pa. “Labels on food at the grocery store provide nutrition information. Anyone can make good choices with just a little attention to details and this general rule of thumb: the less processed, the better.”

Sticking with unprocessed foods, regardless of where one buys them, is a key point to suggest to clients. “Mother Nature has never steered us wrong,” says Salge Blake. “If you stay with food in natural form, it’s going to be more nutrient rich. Produce is lacking in most Americans’ diets, but frozen fruits and vegetables are an easy fix—it’s like a best-kept secret for people who are busy. They have a wonderfully long shelf life so you can stock up, and there’s no prep involved when you’re time crunched. It’s washed, cut, clean, and ready to go. It’s like having Rachael Ray in your freezer!”

Your clients will appreciate suggestions like this as they are looking for foods that are fast but still nutritious. “People need to think in terms of the actual food and food group they’re eating,” adds Geiser. “How does that food provide healthy nutrition? An example for a fast but healthy breakfast would be a piece of fruit, a container of yogurt, and a slice of bread or a roll. And today’s veggies you cook in a bag may be a great way for families to eat more vegetables with dinner.”

When possible, advise clients to select primarily fresh items and save the prepared meals for the busiest days. Even fresh can be fast. “Bagged lettuce, a fruit salad, and fresh chicken or fish microwaved or sautéed in olive oil is a quick and tasty but healthy alternative to some of the premade, high-sodium, high-fat ‘quick entrées’ that are touted as time savers,” says Dillaway-Huber. “Fresh trumps processed foods in terms of nutritive value.”

Consumers should also know that not every prepared food item that claims to be healthy is as nutritious as advertising may have them believe. Sometimes, traditionally healthy options can be prepared with added ingredients. “The consumer should continue to read the Nutrition Facts label on convenience foods with an informed eye,” suggests Rudat. “And that includes those that are deemed ‘healthier options.’”

Benefits vs. Pitfalls
Are there any downsides to shopping at these smaller grocery stores? Well, for one, many think that it will encourage consumers to cook even less when so many ready-made meals are available instead. “I do wish more people would attempt cooking more often,” says Bunce. “It enables you to have more choices and a more wholesome diet. And it doesn’t have to be fancy. I often suggest to my clients that they subscribe to a magazine of their choice ... and then every month, new, healthful recipes are delivered to their doorstep. Trying a new recipe a week also allows you to begin building a repertoire of recipes that fit your lifestyle and build up the pantry to support it.”

But these smaller grocery stores could end up making it easier for people to plan healthy meals. One of the biggest obstacles to cooking more frequently is the anticipation and planning involved, says Bunce. It’s difficult for people to find time to plan out an entire week’s worth of meals when each new day brings more reasons to be rushing around. “When the average person goes to the supermarket with a shopping list for their week’s groceries, they end up stocking up because they don’t really know what meals they are going to prepare each night,” says Lempert. “But quickly stopping in a smaller grocery store for just that one night’s ingredients could make planning meals and cooking easier.”

In addition, these stores may prevent busy families from eating out as often. Families with hectic schedules often eat at restaurants, pick up fast food, or order take-out at least several nights per week. Some of the fresh options available at smaller stores may be healthier alternatives to eating out.

Another potential issue is where the food is coming from. “The feedback I have received from a recently opened Fresh & Easy Market is the concern that many of the foods were imported,” says Geiser, who adds that she has never been in one of the stores herself. “Fewer and fewer people are just accepting imported foods these days due to the issues in China.”

Make Way for Smaller Stores
Regardless of any potential downsides, experts forecast that this is a trend that will continue to gain popularity, so be prepared for the changes they may bring. In time, you just may see one of these small stores crop up in your neighborhood. Notes Lempert: “In my opinion, we’re definitely going to see a lot more of these stores in the future.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.