Transit-oriented retailing

For those who live in urban areas, especially neighborhoods in the process of returning from decades of disinvestment, you may sympathize with the difficulty of trying to find a good grocery store nearby. The dearth of food outlets in cities can be partially attributed to national chains failing to adjust their largely suburban business models for urban environments. Because many chains are used to building large stores in the suburbs, they naturally set out to do the same in the city, but the large box surrounded by parking with monstrous stocks of food isn’t appropriate for a dense urban fabric. Large stores built in the city also have to serve a larger share of the population to make a profit, so drawing from within a 10- or 15-minute walkshed often isn’t good enough. Is there an opening in the market for smaller urban stores?

The British chain Tesco believes so. They are developing “Fresh & Easy” stores for urban and transit-oriented settings, with footprints as small as 10,000 square feet (a fraction of conventional supermarkets), stocked with staples as well as ready-to-eat meals. Prototypes are set to open in Phoenix and Los Angeles. Success with the more compact format could prove a boon to the many communities that are trying to develop walkable neighborhoods with convenient shopping nearby.

From a piece in the Economist:

“At least one reason behind the success of Tesco’s convenience stores is public transport. Many are near, or sometimes even inside, underground and railway stations, making it easy for commuters to pop into a store to grab a meal on their way home…Some, however, worry that this accident of British geography may have coloured Tesco’s view of the ready meals it is proposing to sell through its Fresh & Easy stores in America.”

;It’s certainly no “accident of British geography” that residents shop this way. It’s intentional, based on the commitment to investing in public transportation and walkable communities. Making good food accessible to city residents will have a huge impact on the success of efforts to revitalize struggling cities and neighborhoods. As more cities experience investment, and new transit-oriented developments come online, could it be that Tesco is poised to fill a niche market for smaller stores in old (and new) mixed-use urban environments?