Reader Frank Conte calls my attention to this CSMonitor article, occasioned by the bankruptcy of Winn-Dixie, which explores the dramatic changes going on in the supermarket industry. As in so many other businesses, there are essentially two successful strategies: very low prices, which requires size, tough bargaining, and unmatchable logistics (Wal-Mart) or a great experience with aesthetic attention in both the shopping environment and the foods themselves.
Paradoxically, the strength of Wal-Mart is one of the major factors driving today's aesthetic imperative. If you can't be Wal-Mart, and only one retailer can, you've got to give customers something valuable for the extra money. Great goods and a pleasant shopping experience are one possiblity. Another is quick convenience--the 7-Eleven strategy. Yet another is an appeal to personal identity, such as Whole Foods' earthy-crunchy approach (brilliantly analyzed in this old column by Jonah Goldberg).
Speaking of Wal-Mart, Hugh Hewitt recently suggested that I might have some thoughts on the stores' aesthetics. Here they are: Most traditional Wal-Mart stores are ugly inside and out, with bad lighting and crowded aisles. I have it on good authority that Wal-Mart customer surveys show that when asked what they most enjoy about the "Wal-Mart experience," people say, "Leaving the store." Not good--though not dissatisfied either. (They like the stuff they buy.)
That's not the end of the story, however. Wal-Mart exists in the same competitive world as other businesses. So the company can't entirely ignore aesthetics and, over time, we can expect Wal-Marts to get moer attractive. And, judging from the new one near me, their new Neighborhood Markets--which are grocery stores--are not only better looking than ordinary Wal-Marts but slightly more attractive than the typical Albertson's. The merchandise doesn't go as far up the food chain as I'd like, but at least they keep up their stocks and don't regularly run out of Diet Coke.
Finally, having just returned from New York, I can say there are major swaths of America--or at least Manhattan--that would be aesthetically improved if their existing "super"markets were replaced with even the world's ugliest Wal-Mart.