Written By: Matthew Mirkine
Introduction: What is Food Retailing? As the food system in the United States has developed and matured through the advent of new agricultural practices, technologies, and an ever-increasing population demand for food, so have the many stages of the food system. This is arguably no truer for any step than retailing. In the food chain, retailing is defined as the destinations from which consumers can purchase food. In the United States, there has been a large shift from local, small business food retailers towards large, big box packaging stores. These behemoth food retailers have progressively edged out the ability for the smaller business food retailers of the past to prosper. Nationally, the share of total home food sales controlled by supermarkets and supercenters has increased from 37% in 1958 to 76% in 2008 (1). This change in control of food sales has had a major impact on how the average American purchases food. As these large retailers have cemented their power in the market, consumers have found it more and more difficult to access these stores. Many studies have proven this fact to be true. A study performed by Tom Blachanrd and Tom Lyson in rural areas of Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma showed than as many as 253 of the 873 counties in the region had supermarkets or big box stores in locations where residents had to travel more than ten miles to access the stores (2). Another study of low-income rural counties in the Lower Mississippi Delta identified just one supermarket on average for every 190.5 square miles, with more than 70% of Delta residents traveling thirty or more miles to purchase groceries in a supermarket (2). These staggering statistics are only a spotlight into the problems I will analyze through this paper.
Key Issues: What Are the Problems We Face in Food Retailing?
As discussed above, the prominent phase-shift in who is selling us our food has presented many issues for the average American. As the businesses have increased in size, so has the radius of the area that they affect. One large store has the ability to take business from smaller businesses in a massive area around them. By doing so, they have progressively increased the distance that the consumer must travel to reach them. Similarly, as the size of food retailers has increased, so has their inability to service inter-city and low-income areas of the nation. This truth can be attributed to many factors. Land prices in urban areas forced supermarkets and big box stores out, as their size and property needs grew. They began to shift into suburban and rural areas, where land was cheaper and stores could take advantage of the convenient access afforded by the newly built highway systems (2). Furthermore, as stores began to grow and technologies allowed for food retailers to not be dependent on local growing and farming, the stores no longer supported local agriculture, leaving small farms and food producers to fend for themselves against the growing national distributors. In fact, the major changes that have developed in the retailing aspect of the food system have had large, rippling affects throughout the entire chain.
Implications of Retail Evolution: How Does This Affect the Consumer?
These major changes in how we purchase our food have had a large impact on the food chain as a whole. Supermarkets and big box stores have, essentially, seized control of their supply chains. It takes massive infrastructure to keep national chains such as Wal-Mart and Costco stocked and functional. All throughout the country, massive fleets of food transportation trucks flood the highway systems, forcing the transportation of food to rapidly evolve and fit the needs of the new, massive retailers. Furthermore, as supermarkets and bog box stores cut ties to local-regional food growing and production patterns, they have helped consolidate the