What Does Your Supermarket Say About You?

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

It’s a truism that we vote with our wallets. As conscious consumption becomes the norm, we know that the brands we purchase live or die by our dollars, and increasingly we’re doing our research and trying to support companies whose values are in line with our own.

But it’s also true that we brand ourselves with our wallets. Where we shop sends a message to our friends and neighbors about what we value and what we believe about ourselves. That’s particularly true in one of the most mundane places that we all frequent: the supermarket. Maybe we don’t think about it, but our grocery stores telegraph messages about who we are: The person carrying the Whole Foods tote bag is different from the person carrying a stack of broken-down FreshDirect boxes to the recycling bin.

In the 17 years since the online grocery store FreshDirect was launched in New York City—by a former CEO of Fairway, itself a cult grocery brand—it has grown into a phenomenon throughout the tristate area. Once skeptical about buying fruit they couldn’t sniff and squeeze, New Yorkers embrace the site (and now the app) for its convenience. Even in the suburbs, FreshDirect is New Yorkers’ answer to stocking the fridge and pantry with uniquely local bites. They place their orders with a few frictionless clicks or taps, then wait for home delivery—the perfect scenario for people with crazy, hectic lives, which most New Yorkers think they have.

If seeing FreshDirect delivered to your neighbor’s door feels like watching the arrival of a carefully curated gift (very Barneys Co-op), then seeing another neighbor walk in carrying Fairway bags makes you think she values the hands-on and artisanal. Shopping at Fairway gives an air of having a stylish farm table waiting when you haul home your purchases. I always contrast Fairway to Zabar’s, then revert to Fairway, where the prices are, duh, fair(ish) and the choices extensive: seaweed salad, Maryland crab soup, a zillion yogurt options, fresh or marinating meat from the butcher section.

New York is also one of a few cities (Philadelphia and Seattle are others) where people can join an exclusive food-ordering club, AmazonFresh. I’m sure it’s a real convenience for some, but at $299 per annual subscription, I’ll stick to other grocers.

Just up the road—at least in Connecticut—we have Trader Joe’s (launched in Southern California and now broadly national). It reminds me of the J. Peterman catalog, where the labeling is a sea of stories well told, even if the merchandise isn’t quite me. On the flip side, it conveys practicality. I like the stores’ compactness and the mirage that if it’s at Trader Joe’s it is healthy and affordable. I also like the myth of Santa and Mrs. Claus up at the North Pole with well-fed reindeer and goodwill toward men, women and children.

Trader Joe’s is also in Tucson, but when I’m there, I gravitate toward Sprouts. It’s Trader Joe’s with more foods I want to buy, at even better prices, but without the panache of great copywriting or any semblance of Peterman, Barneys or anyone I know back East. It’s just a no-nonsense place to pick up lamb chops and Bibb lettuce, coconut milk ice cream and breakfast burritos. No one in Tucson ever apologized for driving a Ford, and no one in Tucson apologizes for stocking up at Sprouts.

Although there’s a bit of a backlash in some (Ford-driving) quarters, Whole Foods—aka Whole Paycheck—is still going strong. I secretly really love it, especially its private label products (thrifty me) and the butcher and fishmonger. But I feel as if I’m driving around in a flashy Audi when I pull away with my purchases. In Darien, Conn., the prices seem expensive, but in the Catalina Foothills they seem preposterous.

In Arizona, comparable shopping happens at the boutique AJ’s markets, which are located in only the snazziest hoods of Tucson and Scottsdale. I’ve shopped AJ’s poor cousin, Bashas’, and come away with no complaints but also no sense that its buyers or merchants get me.

Last, but far from least, there’s good old reliable Safeway, which reminds me of the bologna sandwiches I ate 49-plus years ago from my Wonder Woman lunchbox (or maybe it was Batgirl). That was way back when there wasn’t much innovation and when convenience meant packing those sandwiches into plastic baggies for portability. Today Safeway strikes me as the home of same old same old, a perfectly fine place to shop for those who don’t care about food or shopping trends. Whereas Fairway is a Madewell kind of place, Safeway is more like JCPenney’s so-called Arizona Jeans.

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