Stop & Shop's Overhaul

natures_promise.jpgOn a regular basis, I begrudge the absurd amount of time and energy we spend on grocery shopping. To get everything we need, we typically hit 3-4 stores, and I have talked to countless moms who share this inefficient routine. So when Stop & Shop invited me to learn more about their quantitative and qualitative overhaul, I was more than ready for a centralized shopping solution.

First, let me be frank and spell out our grocery conundrum. We are committed to natural, organic products but also can’t financially stomach shopping exclusively at Whole Foods, particularly when it comes to produce (this unfortunately means we end up compromising on produce sometimes). But we’ve found that we can’t shop exclusively anywhere else either; Shaw’s has Wild Harvest, but not as many options for organic produce. We love the affordability of Trader Joe’s, but the selection is small (although sometimes that can be a blessing with a kid in tow) and the produce can be limited and spotty. So, we typically hit Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods for natural dry goods, meats, and produce (if on sale at Whole Foods, or in decent condition at Trader Joe’s), Shaw’s for basics runs and when we compromise on produce, the local bodega when we just need a handful of quick items, and the farmer’s market when we have specific seasonal produce in mind. It makes my brain hurt just thinking about that routine.

Clearly, I’ve been primed for a grocery shopping miracle, but I was skeptical as to whether Stop & Shop would be able to deliver it. I’ll be the first to admit that I have long thought of this grocery store as stodgy, replete with hydrogenated oil-laden products, and with a produce section remarkably void of vaguely exotic produce. (My first and last time shopping at Stop & Shop involved a failed attempt to find basic Asian ingredients in their produce section in 2002.) But at last week’s online and print parenting media lunch at Rialto, I’ll admit that the Stop & Shop reps broke down my stereotypes. Here were the major points that impressed me:

Technology Overhaul

Stop & Shop is stodgy no more. Over the last couple of years they have undergone extensive analysis to figure out ways to improve their convenience (via technology) and to make their offerings quantitatively and qualitatively competitive with other grocery stores. They plan on implementing a number of time saving technological advancements throughout their stores by the end of August, including:

  • Handheld personal scanners to allow shoppers to scan and bag items as they shop.

  • Digital produce scales for weighing and printing price stickers to save time at checkout.

  • Digital deli pre-order so you need not wait in line at the deli (just place your order digitally then pick it up at your assigned time)

  • Self checkout

    Family Friendly Lanes

    If you’ve ever patted yourself on the back for successfully circumventing your child’s junk food requests through the grocery store, only to be faced with the prominent candy section at check out, you’ll love this: Stop & Shop will implement family friendly “Smiles for All” lanes that are candy free. These lanes will feature healthy snacks (e.g., milk, organic juice, yogurt, veggies, string cheese, rice cakes), family friendly magazines, and free activity sheets and stickers for kids. (I highly recommended free biodegradable balloons if they want the kids to go bonkers and for improved brand awareness, let’s see if they respond…)

    Products For All Preferences & Budgets, Including Organics!

    As I said, my image of Stop & Shop’s inventory wasn’t great before this meeting and I was really impressed to learn about their four-pronged corporate line that seeks to attract shoppers with different food preferences and budgets. They include:

  • The bargain Guaranteed Value brand (generic style packaging)

  • The easily visible Stop & Shop brand

  • The premium Simply Enjoy collection; not organic but with pretty, entertaining-oriented packaging

  • And best of all from my perspective, the Nature’s Promise natural and organics line, which, by virtue of including hundreds of products spanning dry goods, dairy, meat and poultry, and produce, offered a glimmer of possibility that I might actually be able to get all of my grocery shopping done in one place.

    Follow Up Reconnaissance Mission

    Talk about an effective lunch. We all left with various product samples, and after trying their Nature’s Promise mac n’ cheese with Laurel (garnering rave reviews), I ended my 6-year Stop & Shop strike two days later for a general grocery run. I had Laurel in tow so wasn’t able to do an exhaustive aisle walk through with a pen and paper in hand, but here are some general impressions:

  • I was able to get most of our favorite natural and organic items at competitive prices via the Nature’s Promise line. This included groceries such as bread, eggs, milk, deli meat (packaged), salad dressing, veggie burgers, ground turkey, snacks, and peanut butter. I didn’t need to hit the paper goods/cleaning supplies aisles, so I’m not sure where they are at with eco-friendly household products.

  • In several cases where I wanted natural products but Nature’s Promise brand items were not available (or evident to me), there were other natural brand alternatives at competitive prices (e.g., Cascadian Farm cereal, Organic Valley half & half, Bearitos taco shells, etc.)

  • There were a few items that they either didn’t have or I didn’t – and would like to - see in the Nature’s Promise line, such as mayonnaise, bread crumbs, coffee, yogurt, baking items (e.g., chocolate chips, flour, etc.), popsicles, and rotisserie chicken. Rotisserie chicken in particular is a big sticking point for me these days; they are a huge mealtime lifesaver for us, and while the “natural” chicken (I later realized that this label refers to flavoring not free range status) I purchased was in fact very delicious, we always purchase free range, natural meats, so if I’m going to become an exclusive Stop & Shop customer, they’d “have me at free range chicken” as it were.

  • One item that popped out as being more expensive was the Nature’s Promise chunk light tuna; notably more expensive than competitors ($1.59 instead of $1.19 at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s).

  • I have to admit that walking through produce was thrilling. There was a lot of organic availability at decent prices, and I also noticed significant collections of produce marked as locally grown (“Roadside Stand” collection). I asked a staffer what the definition of local was and he indicated that the produce comes from New England farms. I thought this offering was particularly excellent.

  • Like some other stores, Stop & Shop offers 5 cents back per reusable bag you bring, but beyond that I do wish they would default to offer paper bags or bag in plastic more efficiently. I needed more bags beyond the 6 totes I brought and unfortunately wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the bagging, which was excessive (in some cases, just 2-3 not so heavy items per bag).

  • The family friendly lanes were not yet in place, but our cashier (#00134 according to my receipt) was a sweet lady who, without asking, gave Laurel several activity sheets to take home. Love that.

  • The Bag Test: we have joked with friends about The Bag Test across grocery stores, noting that for $100 of shopping we easily walk out with only 2 shopping bags at Whole Foods, compared to 4-5 at Trader Joe’s. Excessive plastics aside, my shopping bill that day was almost $140 and I left with my own 6 reusable totes plus several other shopping bags. I thought we did very well in that run value-wise.

    In short, the media lunch and reconnaissance mission both proved enlightening. As I said, I was not able to do a full store walk through, but I was truly impressed by the amount of organic shopping I was able to do at competitive prices. I only was left with a few miscellaneous items to pick up at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. I will want to scope out Stop & Shop's offerings in more detail, and am hopeful that they will continue to expand their Nature’s Promise line (to include the specific items I targeted above, and beyond) because if they do, they’ll have a dedicated customer who will be extremely happy to streamline her routine to one – not five – shopping outlets.