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Grocery Stores as Indicators of Personal Identity

“Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) residents have a cornucopia of grocery shopping options. There’s SuperTarget for the suburban three-car family; Whole Foods for elite urbanistas; Byerly’s for wealthy gray-hairs; Lunds for urban singles; Rainbow and Cub for the minivan-and-lunchbox set; Kowalski’s for people who mix and match all of the above; and SuperValu for those unwashed enough to care about price.

But it’s no longer sufficient to just eat your vegetables; now they have to be organic. Not Wal-Mart organic, either. Real organic, grown by hippies who have thought deeply about the relationships of the Hopi to a particular strain of corn. And delivered to market in a way that consumed no fossil fuels and created no toxic byproducts.

The weekly shopping run has become inextricably found up with the modern shopper’s identity. The choice is about money, certainly, but it’s also about tribe. The store tells who you are - and just as important - who you are not.”

“You are where you eat: What your choice of grocery stores says about who you are” by Beth Hawkins, City Pages, March 7, 2007, p. 17


The move to the suburbs was about social stratification (and racial identity). The more affluent citizens who could afford to buy property in large parcels away from the urban masses wanted other amenities as well.

In 1980, when a Twin Cities grocer named Don Byerly opened his fifth store, the opulence of this store in St. Louis Park turned more than a few heads. An enormous chandelier hanging over the freezer section was visible from the front door. A new premium ice cream called Haagen-Daz was packed in the freezers. The aisles were carpeted, and huge lobsters were seen crawling over each other in an oceanic tank. Next to the Byerly’s store was a gift shop that sold crystal decanters, an upscale restaurant, and a wine shop.

The novelty of opulent supermarkets has worn off. The Food Marketing Institute reports: “With tangible luxuries no longer atop the pyramid, intangibles like service and experiences now dominate ... The mainstreaming of affluence means big opportunities ahead.”
A more recent trend has been the socially responsible consumer of foods. Some buy “fair traded” coffee from Latin America, confident that the peasant growers will be adequately rewarded for their labor. Health-conscious consumers insist on organically grown produce. Farmers certify that the food has been produced without pesticides and other toxic materials.

Whole Foods, a supermarket chain originating in an Austin, Texas, food coop, has pitched its wares to this segment of the market. The article in City Pages reports: “Stepping into a Whole Foods feels like entering a temple of sumptuous purity. Huge signs explain the company’s commitment not to sell foods containing artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats. Other advertisements offer mini-profiles of the artisans who grew the mushrooms or cultured the cheese. Customers are invited to sample imported, exotic salts. Whole foods controls its image by controlling its inventory. It’s as if one dented orange box of Gain laundry detergent would cause the entire artifice to topple.”

And so we have food stores oriented to two types of affluent customers: the nouveau riche or those customers dazzled by sumptuous, expensive products; and the more discriminating, thoughtful, and socially aware type of customers. For simplicity’s sake, we can identify these two types as Republican and Democratic, respectively. The rich Democrats are those who temper their inherent guilt at being rich with socially conscious consumer behavior; the Republicans don’t care about this sort of thing.

In addition, there are the poor people who shop for groceries mainly on the basis of price. For them, stores such as Rainbow Foods and Cub Foods offer food products with generally low prices. Other food discounters such as Costco and Sam’s Club encourage low-cost, large-quantity purchases in a warehouse-like setting. The customer instinctively associates low prices with buying in volume.

The City Pages article has profiled the three types of shopper with illustrations of models each carrying particular products and dressed in a certain way:

The Byerly’s shopper is a middle-aged woman with eyebrows “perfectly arched by Juut” and wearing a string of Mikimoto cultured pearls. She has in her right hand a brick of Brie cheese, “triple cream, of course - higher butter fat than what the neighbor put out when she hosted the Book Club last month.” This customer has French cuffs to give her “somewhere to put the semi-precious stones.” She is carrying a “reusable bag” which “nicely conceals high-fiber, low-cal nibbles purchased to counteract the brie and the white-flour baguette.” “Tynant still” wine, costing $4.17, is in a “red bottle because the girls in the book club have done that Blue Welsh water.”

For Whole Foods, we have a more youthful man wearing a sweater and jeans whose “expensive rimless glasses says he dresses down by choice.” He is carrying a “biodynamic eggplant” in his right hand, “in case that petite rolfer he’s cooking for notices that kind of thing.” His “post soul-patch facial hair ... shows commitment and maturity.” That “hemp sweater” he is wearing “only looks like Old Navy; in fact it’s fair-trade certified.” He is carrying in his left hand a “reusable string bag worth a nickel at (the) checkout (counter); plus, (it) shows off his good taste.” A can of carrot juice in this bag is something that “no one actually likes, this guy included.” The bag also contains the current issue of “Runner’s World magazine, because Ultramarathoner seems pretentious.” Some “organic green tea” in the bag is “an antioxidant because the running was preceded by years of American spirits.”

Finally, we have a female shopper a Cub Foods, perhaps in her 30s, who is lugging four paper bags full of groceries. Her hair is platinum blonde, suggesting, perhaps, that “after high school, daughter has a real future in cosmetology.” She is wearing a pair of ”Reeboks” athletic shoes worn because “there’s almost an acre of aisles in that store, and maybe one of these days her husband will feel like walking with her.” A bag of “off-brand Fruity O’s” is jutting out of the bag she is carrying; “it hasn’t occurred to her this is why Little Ryan needs Adderall.” Behind it is a box of “Reggio’s pizza, famous for its ‘butter crust’, because a pound of cheese isn’t enough dairy.” The “Laundry Detergent” in another bag is “not just lavender-scented (but) Lavender-Vanilla.” This woman has also bought a carton of eggs because she “discovered during her Atkins phase (that) they’re the absolute cheapest protein.”


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