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Supermarkets Have a Millennial Problem, and Suburbia Is to Blame

How does an industry that historically catered to white suburbanites reinvent itself to attract more diverse shoppers?
Ralphs Grocer Company pioneered the supermarket concept in the 1920s.
Ralphs Grocer Company pioneered the supermarket concept in the 1920s.Los Angeles Public Library

Millennials often get touted as the “new consumers,” with a whole new way of shopping than the generations before them. They’re tech savvy, they stay on top of the latest trends using social media, and they’re brand conscious. But there’s at least one industry that’s struggling to figure them out: supermarkets—in particular, chains that cropped up in the early 20th century.

Supermarkets have been grappling with their image since the ‘80s, when “traditional mass retailers started to be seen as having this legacy of being déclassé,” says Benjamin Davison, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Virginia who’s writing a book about the history of supermarkets. Even though there is a Kroger—one of the oldest grocery chains in the West—down the street from his home in Seattle, he says prefers to drive farther away to shop at “more bourgie” places. And when I tell him that I prefer the Trader Joe’s 15 minutes away over the older Giant grocery chain near my apartment, he assures me that many people under 30 would say the same.