An Open Letter to Urban Grocery Stores

Posted by Team TransitScreen on 7/13/16 3:47 PM

Honestly, we’re frustrated. Cars circling endlessly for a parking spot at a popular urban grocery store is an all-too-familiar sight. We all have to eat, which means we also have to shop for food. Increasingly, us city-dwellers who reside in particularly high-density areas may find ourselves turning to specialty grocers — high-end chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — for last-minute items on the way home.

We may also be without a car, meaning we rely on transit, bicycles, or our own two feet to get us home for dinner. This hypothetical is not far-fetched, assuming we are shopping in an area well-served by alternative modes of transit. Shoppers who live this reality might notice they’re increasingly in good company. While results from a 2015 USDA report on grocery trip purchasing and commuting trends showed a resounding majority of modern shoppers still arrive and leave by car, approximately 6 percent of shoppers regularly rely on transit or other means to get groceries. This proportion is substantially higher among lower-income shoppers (up to 20 percent), and, likely, high-density urban shoppers of all incomes.

Grocers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s — known for promoting “green” claims across the board — can play a hand not only in facilitating these clean commutes, but also in encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home on busy Saturday mornings.


Carrefour Express Storefront
Trader Joe’s in downtown Berkeley, CA. ( PHOTO)


How, you ask? Well, this is where the urban grocery debate gets convoluted and contentious. Perhaps the most obvious answer would be eliminating at-store parking to forcibly stop car commuting. However, most shops are still mandated to include a certain number of parking spots, even in areas of particularly high land intensity where space would better utilized for more store floor area, or maybe a small plaza where patrons could snack on purchases. Those that are not so amenable to the idea (presumably most grocery stores), will likely insist on developing parking regardless of land use permissions in fear of deterring auto-oriented potential shoppers.

As UCLA scholar Donald Shoup has long argued, there is a high cost to free parking. This cost often manifests in inflated goods prices at retail outlets, where it’s embedded in the value of purchase itself. Thus, while you do not directly pay to park at Harris Teeter (after burning all that gas waiting for a spot), your groceries are more expensive than they would be otherwise — but so are the same groceries purchased by patrons who didn’t drive. This places particular burden on those who do not have the option to drive to the store — namely, people who cannot afford to own a car. Though this group is not necessarily the typical Whole Foods demographic, who is to say whether this is an outcome of choice or exclusion?

We at TransitScreen would encourage modern grocery stores — Giant, Safeway, Harris Teeter, Kroger, Aldi, 7-Eleven, Carrefour, Target Express — to consider the consequences of upholding increasingly outdated parking expectations. Furthermore, we call on shops to incentivize sustainable travel, whether that means cutting back on parking, promoting customer awareness of cleaner travel options, or providing more infrastructure for alternative modes — bicycle racks, for instance. Ideally, a combination of all the above.


Carrefour Express, a supermarket chain based in France, has more than 2,000 stores worldwide. Carrefour Express, a supermarket chain based in France, has more than 2,000 stores worldwide.


Real-time transportation information displays, like TransitScreen, can help implement clean transportation measures at city grocery outlets. Shoppers might consider leaving their cars behind on the next trip once they are made aware of available transit, bikeshare, or ridesourcing options.

Moreover, anecdotal evidence supports shoppers who commute using transit and are equipped with real-time arrival information may be inclined to stay in the store longer than they would otherwise — and, in fact, purchase more! Consider this: You’ve just checked out at Whole Foods. You look up at a TransitScreen display to discover your next bus isn’t coming for another 10 minutes. It’s a warm summer morning, and you recall passing a beverage bar when you entered the store. While previously you may have rushed to the bus stop after getting your receipt to make sure you didn’t miss said bus, now you know there’s time to grab an iced coffee. You buy one. It’s delicious.

Given how much time we spend food shopping and the necessity of the exercise, grocers ought accommodate all types of shoppers — regardless of demographics or travel preferences. In fact, they can even encourage sustainable travel among patrons by reconsidering the perceived need for parking and by educating visitors on alternative choices.

We at TransitScreen are happy to assist with that. And, when there’s time, we always buy another coffee.


TransitScreen display at the Starbucks outside Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA. TransitScreen display at the Starbucks outside Swedish Medical Center  in Seattle, WA.


Topics: TDM, Mobility