Have you heard about the hottest club in America right now? People are lining up outside to get in, and this place has everything: bright lights, loud blaring music, a fully stocked bar. There might be a wait to get in – reports of lines forming around the block have been increasingly prevalent – but there is no dress code, other than to let your freak flag fly.
Wanna wear pajamas in public? You won’t be alone. Feel the need to wear every diamond you’ve ever purchased at once? Good news: You’ll have blingy company. Want to wear a gas mask? You can compare models with the other people who look like they just came off of a battlefield in World War I.
At this point, many readers have questions. If every bar, social club and gathering spot in America is closed for business, who’s going to the club? Are we doing some very obscure version of the Stephan bit of Saturday Night lIve fame? No. And, of course, we’re not really talking about a club, so much as the place that in recent weeks has risen from the ashes of day-to-day commerce to replace the club.
The grocery store.
Consumers are in fact lining up, in wild outfits of all descriptions, to stand under the artificial lights and listen to electronic music. Granted, they are there to shop, not dance (although some people have clearly been cooped up a little too long and are sambaing their way through the frozen foods aisle), but they are also there to socialize. To mingle. To find love. All at a socially acceptable distance of six feet (two shopping carts).
And if you think that sounds incredibly ridiculous and believe that a couple of weeks of social quarantine is not suddenly going to turn nationwide Kroger stores into the new Copacabana for the age of COVID-19, we would agree with you, sort of.
Because, like many things we are observing today, this didn’t happen overnight. The “black swan” event in progress didn’t create a trend line so much as accelerate it. And supermarkets have been evolving into hangout locations (and places to possibly find a date) over the last several years.
“I once dated a woman from the potato section at Mariano’s,” Bob Schneider, a 67-year-old semi-retired, twice-divorced lobbyist from Oak Brook, Illinois, told The Wall Street Journal. “The next thing you know, we’re at the wine bar and then we’re dating.”
And if you find yourself questioning the entrance of a wine bar into that story, grocery stores are increasingly adding bars, cafes, restaurants, QSR counters and pre-made food buffets to the traditional mix of CPG and fresh produce items.
It’s why chains like Kroger, Wegman’s and Whole Foods have invested millions in transforming grocery store trips into a social experience instead of a miserable chore. Consumers come more often, stay longer and spend more on higher-margin items like drinks, dinners and pre-made food.
And, if recent reports are accurate, they also find love. Some, like Mr. Schneider, are older people who aren’t interested in learning the finer points of swiping left or right on Tinder, and find that they tend to do better at the grocery store than at a local singles bar.
“People aren’t going there in desperation,” he noted. “They are trying to get something to eat, be open – and it’s fun. And the cheese section, my God!”
And older cheese lovers haven’t been the only people in recent years looking for love in the produce section of the local supermarket. A millennial Los Angeles Magazine writer did an extensive deep dive on the subject last spring, and determined that supermarkets are a lot like singles bars and clubs – you can meet someone at any of them, but meeting the right person requires picking the right venue.
For example, if you try the independent grocery in Echo Park, you’d best be looking for “hipsters; cool Gen Xers who are/were in bands; health-conscious Baby Boomers who were at Woodstock; anyone who voted for Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein; people with facial piercings, skateboarders, vintage clothing wearers and dudes who wear sweat headbands for fashion.”
If that seems like too hip of a crowd, try Whole Foods in Venice, California, which is apparently the “everything” shop for supermarket love matches. “If you can get past being distracted by the beautiful packaging to look at your fellow shoppers, you’ll see there is someone for everyone.”
And today, there are no singles bars and no real clubs – there is only the supermarket for interacting at distance with people one does not live with. In fact, in some places, since only a certain number of people can enter at once, they are like exclusive clubs – actually being in the produce section these days is a bit like getting behind the velvet rope and into the VIP section with the Kardashians.
But even when the world goes back to normal and the other options re-open for businesses, we can’t help but wonder: Will supermarkets have advanced their march into being community hubs instead of shop-and-go locations that are interchangeable with each other?
Only time will tell.