Why are grocery stores in D.C. so crowded?

At 5:08 p.m. on a recent Sunday, customers at the Safeway at 17th and Corcoran Streets NW are engaged in an all-too familiar dance.

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(Photo: TBD Staff)

Long story short

Grocery shopping is a chore, but it's even more so in D.C.

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“Pardon me, excuse me,” says one 20-something woman as she attempts to squeeze past the gridlock of shopping carts and humanity in the cereal aisle. She’s able to grab that box of Cheerios she’s after, but not before forcing a young mom and her toddler to scoot forward about a foot, which is all the room they have to spare. Press on another couple of inches, and their cart would soon find itself squarely in the backside of the man in front of them.

An hour or so later in Columbia Heights, the Giant Food at Tivoli Square is similarly packed. The aisles here are more spacious, but the checkout lines are already spilling back into them, making them difficult to access from the front side of the store.

By 8:25 p.m., shoppers at the O Street Giant in Shaw may be having the most frustrating grocery experience of the night. The lines here don’t just cross over into the aisle entrances, they extend halfway down them. From the time she first enters the snaking “Express” line with a basket containing bread, milk, lettuce and yogurt, one woman spends 24 minutes getting to the cashier and completing her transaction.

Sunday evenings are peak grocery shopping hours, but it’s not unusual to find crowded conditions at District grocery stores on any night of the week.

“Especially late afternoon and into the evening, it’s like a madhouse,” says Terrance Johnson, who lives in Columbia Heights and shops at the Tivoli Giant.

Being able to pop in to a nearby market and emerge minutes later with a gallon of milk or a couple of apples is supposed to be an irrevocable provision of the urban living contract (others include better access to transit, concentrated cultural opportunities, more nightlife options). Many neighborhoods in the center of D.C., however, are defaulting on their obligations.

Lynda Laughlin lives by herself in Mount Pleasant, and she’d like to be able to make occasional trips to Trader Joe’s in the West End, which sells the sort of easy-to-prepare prepackaged foods that make cooking for one easier. But too many chaotic trips have forced her to give up on shopping at the store. It’s just too crowded, she says.

“I refuse to go there now, especially when GW is in session,” Laughlin says.

The city’s stunted retail landscape explains some of the problem: There are very few of the delis and bodegas that serve denser parts of other big cities, like New York or Chicago. Here, it’s often a choice between dining out or hazarding one of the city’s full-service grocery stores.  

The options haven’t always been so stark.

“Eighty years ago, urban areas were the best grocered areas in the country,” explains John Talmadge, president and chief executive of Social Compact, which works to increase private investment in inner-city neighborhoods. “You had butchers, and delis, and small corner stores all over the place.”

But then came the inevitable consolidation of the grocery industry, and with it the move toward enormous supermarkets that could be developed on large tracts of virgin land in the suburbs. These massive stores offered every product under the sun and then some, and allowed grocery chains to build a better buffer into their admittedly thin profit margins. It’s a business model that proved so successful, almost no full-service supermarket chains have moved away from it since. And that’s become a problem for cities.

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