Monday, April 27, 2009

Earth Day

Wegmans Hunt Valley. Photo from the Baltimore Sun.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the challenges of integrating sustainability into our daily lives can be found in a Wegmans supermarket. I went to the store in Hunt Valley, Maryland on Sunday at the behest of my mom. She makes monthly pilgrimages to the suburbs to shop here and I decided to join her. I didn't have my digital camera with me, so I'll have to describe the experience the best I can: We began shopping in the pharmacy and worked our way back across the 140,000 square foot store (about double the size of your typical supermarket). The shopping carts are also supersized, a new change, apparently, because even the Wegmans' regulars were having trouble navigating the aisles. My mom knocked over a produce display with hers; I took out a shelf of shaving cream. It was like the SUV of carts in the SUV of stores.

The "regular" part of Wegmans looks like your typical shopping market, just bigger. Photo from their website.

We worked our way through the pharmacy to the cleaning supplies and then onto the food. I started to suspect something was weird when I got to the milk. They had just two brands, mostly in plastic jugs, and the Wegmans store brand was one of them. I couldn't understand how a store this large wouldn't carry organic milk. Ditto on the yogurt. It seemed a paltry selection for such a mammoth place. In the aisles carrying peanut butters, I couldn't find any almond butter. It was all Peter Pan and such. I used my in-cart GPS system to locate my mom (OK, they don't have those yet, but they really should) and she told me to wait until I got to the other part of the store—the organic part.

The floor plan. Click on the image for a larger view.

The store transitions about halfway through from a "regular" grocery store to "Nature's Marketplace." The interior decor is completely different. Suddenly the aisles are more intimate, there's more wood and warm spotlights. Quaint hand-painted signs announce the fare. It's a completely separate experience. It's a shopping doppelganger: everything from the other part of the store is also here—from milk and yogurt to canned soups and beans, to nut butters and beauty products. I looked at my cart full of groceries and wanted to put half of it back because the brands I normally purchase were here, in this special land of "sustainability." There was even a separate section for "better" coffees and teas.

For Earth Day last week, Wegmans put out a press release announcing a special event on Saturday, April 25. "As customers shop, they’ll see, touch, taste and learn how the three “R’s” of environmentalism – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – are shaping the way Wegmans does business, and they’ll discover easy ways their own families can make more sustainable choices at home."

It goes on to say that "choosing organic foods is another shift toward greater sustainability, and customers will be able to sample organic foods throughout the store."

Throughout the store being a key word here. This shopping experience is a wondeful metaphor for the challenges of integrated sustainability as a whole. How will we ever make it a daily part of our lives when we still keep it isolated in its own special category? Why should there be four separate locations for yogurt in one store? Why not present everything side-by-side and allow the consumer to see the spectrum of choices and make educated decisions? Instead, customers simply push their mammoth cart past Nature's Marketplace on their way to the deli and they never explore alternatives. It's high time we stop building special shelves for organics and it's definitely time to stop marketing it as an expensive, elitist option.

The press release ended by saying: "Earth Day shouldn’t be a one-day celebration, but rather a reminder to us that changes made, even small ones, on the other 364 days of the year can make a difference."

That's great. And it starts by changing the layout of your store.