Grocers Declare Independence From Big Food

At this very moment, a revolution is happening in our grocery stores. Someday someone will write a musical or maybe even a rock opera about this glorious and stirring time. It will dramatize the struggles, the debates, the storming of the barricades... wait, no, sorry, I meant the algorithms, the spreadsheets. Revolutions aren't what they used to be.

But this one is still real. For decades, major food corporations have told grocers where to put their products on the shelves and how much to charge for them—and paid hefty "slotting fees" to guarantee the space. But now, The Wall Street Journal reports, the grocers have risen up and cried, "No more!"

Well, okay, it's more like they're saying, "Hey, we've got our own data about what people buy, and we are going to use it, and if that means our own store brands get better real estate, too bad for you, General Mills. You can keep your slotting fee."

The stores—specifically the bigger chains such as Kroger and Walmart—have amassed this data through software that includes a video surveillance component. Per the WSJ: "Grocers are incorporating into the software's algorithms such metrics as 'walk rates,' which measure how much time a typical customer is willing to spend looking for certain products before giving up and leaving without buying anything." Then they use this data to draw maps, or "planograms," of the shelves that show how different locations affect product sales.

But the major food corporations aren't taking this lying down. Therein lies the drama. Well, except that they are pledging to work with the grocers instead of enforcing the old ways.

Okay, maybe this isn't really musical-worthy drama. But it's still really interesting to think about how maybe we aren't as in control of the things that we buy as we like to think we are.