Why would anyone put a second floor in a grocery store? There’s a reason

The two-story Harris Teeter at 1015 Providence Road in Charlotte.
The two-story Harris Teeter at 1015 Providence Road in Charlotte.

How do you pick which supermarket gets your business? Sure, prices are one way, but they’re not the only way.

How markets have to be built in urban areas is forcing big changes in how they’re designed – and how you use them.

Kevin Kelley, co-owner of the Charlotte-based design firm Shook Kelley, lives in Los Angeles now, but he still has ties here. He’s a close observer of commercial development, both in Charlotte and around the country.

How many times have you heard – or said yourself – that supermarket trips that involve elevators or escalators really bug you? Think South Boulevard’s Publix, Myers Park’s Harris Teeter and South Park’s Whole Foods.

Designers like Kelley know you hate it, but they don’t have a choice. With development and people moving back into urban areas, every square foot has to count.

“It’s getting more challenging nationwide,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of big spaces anymore.”

They think hard before they do it, he says. There has to be something rewarding, like a coffee bar or cooking school, to get you up there. And even then, you may not go, he says.

“We have to do a lot to make that pay off,” he says.”

Smaller, more-focused specialty food stores like Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Aldi’s rival Lidl, which is coming to Charlotte, are getting more customers. Because they’re small, it’s easier and faster to find your way through them, and they can focus narrowly on the foods you’ll buy. You’re also seeing smaller, tighter grocery offerings in unusual stores, such as Target.

“We’re pleading with stores: Learn to think small,” Kelley says.

Which Charlotte grocery had the cheapest prices in the Observer’s survey? And how do they compare to 2014 costs? We looked at Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Walmart, Publix - and 5 more.

The giant “we have everything” food stores, like Walmart, Costco and larger chain supermarkets, have to change their model to survive, Kelley says. And many supermarket chains still resist that notion.

“They really struggle with editing,” he says. “ ‘No, no – we have to have 70 feet of sodas.’ Even though soda sales are going down.

“Grocery stores are trying to figure out how to be more nimble. Their philosophy was how to please customers,” by offering everything you could possibly want. Now that they have less space, some are resisting that change.

“Imagine you’re Harris Teeter,” he says. “You’re going, ‘What? Cut out the whole deli?’ Can these stores figure out how to do it?”

Designers like Kelley spend a lot of time watching you, by the way. They see your body language and your facial expressions when you’re in a store. When you go into the specialty areas around the outer edges – produce, sushi, gourmet – you act happy and you tend to buy more.

When you walk into the center aisles, where all those sodas, canned goods and cake mixes are, your body language changes. You don’t like it much in there and the center aisles of traditional supermarkets now get less traffic and lower sales.

And millennials, the young adults whose habits are reshaping so many things, are forcing just as much change in how people sell you food. Surveys show that while they focus more on cost, they spend less of their income on groceries and more on dining out, they’re less likely to use loyalty cards or coupons, and they do more shopping online.

“Some people think it’s the end of grocery stores,” Kelley says. “I don’t. I do believe it’s a reinvention, a new era in the way we live.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis