The “What If” Factor

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\"The-WhatThere has been a great deal of gnashing of teeth during the past decade or so about the demise of the center aisle of grocery. Excitement has migrated to the peripheries, e.g. fresh everything from veggies to dairy to baked goods.  It makes sense, of course. Frozen and packaged foods, hmmm, not so interesting. These are the areas that have been commoditized: Cereal, mac-and-cheese, ketchup, crackers, packaged cookies. It’s all such a sad wasteland.

And yet.

Perhaps the center aisles of the grocery stores have not died, they have just moved. It turns out they’ve been relocated to (surprise) chain drug and convenience stores.

The Center Aisle Reimagined

CVS, as one example, is being reimagined. We are welcomed at the entrance with what looks for anything like the center aisle of a conventional supermarket.

A new planogram is being installed which starts customers down the entry aisle chock-a-block with packaged foods — not just chips, salsa and beer. It is all there: Pastas and sauces, the classic Post cereals and Betty Crocker cake and brownie mixes in a radical profusion of flavors. The usual grocery brands are all here, ranging from Hershey’s and Mars to Nabisco, Campbell’s, Kellogg’s and Purina. One must traverse four long and packed product corridors before there is an aspirin in sight. Wither the pharmacist? She’s there somewhere, but the pharmacy is not the star of the show. Rather, it seems refocused on center aisle grocery staples with full-sized products, not smaller snack packs for spontaneous consumption.

So why go around the corner to the dusty, inscrutable urban Gristede’s – with its rabbit warren approach to merchandising, dusty goods and seething checkout staff – or even a sparkling suburban megastore – when the exact four things I might need in a hurry is right at hand?


Rather than shouting from the rafters about price promotions and decimating forests to produce circulars laden with coupons, chain drug has quietly gone about the business of providing convenience rather than touting pure cheapness. They seem to have found a value beyond value pricing for which consumers are ready to pay a modest premium or turn to in a pinch knowing that their loyalty will be rewarded.

I suspect Amazon is monetizing the same sweet spot. Prime is a prime example and so is the automatic replenishment of the Pantry service.  The Dash button is its own reward. It’s pure novelty, coupled with the convenience of never running out of anything essential, ever again.

  • Hypothesis: Perhaps it’s not (just) about the inevitability of the juggernaut of fresh, organic, gluten free and bespoke micro-brands taking over grocery as much as it is about just a simple concept called convenience. Big grocery has gotten so big that it’s just too much of an exhausting Odyssey to venture in for cereal, snack crackers and spaghetti. So, big drug has picked up the slack.

I began to wonder if this might be an option for conventional retail? Just transpose the emphasis on convenience that is showing up first in grocery to hum a different tune for department stores and specialty retail.

  • Hypothesis: A mall could be convenient.
  • Hypothesis: A department store could find the same safe space through which to evolve.

Imagine What If

Imagine what a new planogram would entail. What is the apparel equivalent of the center aisle? Basic casual wear. Polos, chinos, tees, jeans and seasonal basics? Right now, merchandising is a race to the bottom. But perhaps it’s time to play a casual game of ‘What If.’

  • What if the first floor were not a gauntlet of perfume, jewelry and purses to be warily, quickly navigated, but a curated, easy to access portfolio of must-haves for men, women and kids? Shopped, tried on and carried home, or same day shipped without the schlepp?
  • What if the restaurant were not hidden from view, but showcased as a cool treasure hunt respite, luring us towards casual culinary preparation edification. Why not learn how to use various paraphernalia in the service of witnessing sous chefs prepping our snacks and lattes?
  • What if the customer could register for her ‘basics’ and arrange for automatic replenishment via a ‘dash-like’ toggle? One of the sad laments we hear is “Once I find the bra (make-up foundation, lipstick, stockings, jeans, underwear) I love, I can never find it again!” What if she didn’t have to go searching? What if her perfect ‘whatever’ just arrived at pre-determined intervals? Or, the store made the effort to remind her that her son is due for a larger-sized sneaker, since it’s six months since his last Nike acquisition.
  • What if she weren’t limited by what is actually in that particular store or even in its warehouse? Instead, the store would provide a concierge service for that lime green polo shirt, or size 27/30 jeans, or ruby lip liner available elsewhere in the mall and bring it to her as she sipped a cappuccino?
  • What if the Amazon “customers who liked X also liked Y” algorithm could be programmed by a savvy retailer to text the customer in store and suggest where to find shirts to go with the pants he just tried on? Or bought last month? Or is wearing now?
  • What if we decided it was a good thing to have a place just to sit down for a moment in store? Maybe it would be to wait for a partner to try clothes on, it would be to relax and reframe the list, and maybe it would be just to catch a breath. Why not have comfortable chairs and attractive seating areas available?
  • Gosh! What if every specialty retailer was as interested in us as Williams-Sonoma is? Their sales staff is recruited and/or trained to care. This chain proves it daily through its seemingly intuitive delivery of the emotional promise of home, hearth and hospitality.

All of which leads me to my main question: What if convenience becomes Every Day Tremendous Convenience (EDTC) to gain her respect and loyalty? It is surely working at chain drug and at online retailing. Could it be time to try it in reality? Is there time left before the clock runs out on the American mall?



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