A reader writes:
Most of the items McNamee lists – milk, eggs, fresh vegetables, cheese and meat – require refrigeration, watering, frequent restocking or other special handling. All of that is more efficient if the items are located at the rear of the store, so they’re closer to the storeroom, loading docks, and mechanical infrastructure. Sometimes the design of a store is a nod to plain old engineering, not the sinister social kind.
Another offers a very different take:
In Texas, there is a particularly despicable phenomenon known as “Central Market”, a division of the giant H.E.B. chain here. Central Market stores cater to an clientele that doesn’t mind paying higher prices for the gratifying illusion that doing so makes them upscale. These stores are laid out with one long maze-like aisle that snakes around all the way from entrance to the check-out counter. In other words, you have to navigate the entire store even just to buy a can of Pledge. In normal grocery stores, a knowledgeable disciplined shopper can march down one aisle and back if all they want is a gallon of milk and avoid lots of distracting impulse buys. But in CM you can’t.
I’ve pointed all this out to several loyal customers who refuse to shop elsewhere, even at conventional HEBs, to no avail. You get a definite sense that they think the other stores are strictly for the hoi polloi.
Update from several readers who rush to defend Central Market:
Your second reader doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Central Market does indeed have a long snake-like aisle. But it also has several cut-throughs that make it easy to bypass the sections you don’t want to visit, unlike a regular grocery store. It also has much less space devoted to processed foods and a great beer/wine selection which I view as big positives. Only issue I have with them is that the stores close have massive parking issues, but wanted to set the record straight.
Your reader who hates Central Market is wrong. Central Market offers a fantastic experience, with the shopping areas broken up to resemble traditional markets, not to create a maze. There is a flow to the overall store, but there are plenty of cut-throughs that are marked and that easily enable knowledgeable shoppers to take short cuts. The example of a can of Pledge, for example – a knowledgeable shopper will know that there is a very easy way to get to the nonperishable aisles and right back out.
Central Market is booming, growing from one Austin location to ten throughout Texas by later this year. For products that are offered both at Central Market and the chain’s mass-market stores (H-E-B), they commit to matching the H-E-B price at Central Market, and then adding a ton of fresh, organic, and other options at prices that easily beat Whole Foods. They work hard to feature local produce and products. When I lived away from Austin, missing H-E-B and Central Market was one of the worst aspects. See this for more.
Unlike that other high end Texas-based grocery chain that preaches an organic gospel no matter the actual health benefits, Central Market focuses on freshness, variety, and quality while eschewing the hippy pseudoscience that pervades its competitor. Far from being some evil exercise in consumer manipulation, I’ve found that Central Market’s layout mirrors how I actually shop and in fact encourages me to eat healthier by placing the fresh foods up front. You enter into a produce section that is larger than most East Coast grocers and teeming with amazing, exotic fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen anywhere else. From there, it’s on to the fish counter and butcher shop, twin 100-foot cold cases with an incredible variety of fresh cut meats, fish, and in-house prepared sausages. Only then do you find yourself in a more traditionally laid out store, albeit one with an epic selection of affordable wines and loads of local craft beer. Some of the other offerings are pricier than at a “normal” grocery store, but in my experience the basics compare favorably.
I shop there because I like the quality and the variety, not out of some dickish sense of superiority. There’s a reason that the owners of NYC’s Eataly are rumored to have looked to Central Market when embarking on their venture. And the lack of a Central Market is a small reason that, when recently faced with an opportunity to move to New York, my spouse and I stayed in Texas.