Main Line Myth #127: One-Stop Shopping

Even Odysseus couldn't complete a trip for groceries on the Main Line

I’ve just returned from grocery shopping, and I’m totally worn out. Why? Because food shopping on the Main Line usually requires stopping at no less than five different stores to fulfill a single shopping list.

I’ve been operating under the impression that Main Line residents must be a particularly complacent group. How else to explain why shoppers have not chained themselves to rows of shopping carts or taken store managers hostage to demand a better selection, shelves that are actually stocked, and good service? Bad enough that we can’t buy wine and beer with our groceries in Pennsylvania—a topic we’ll discuss another day—but we can’t even buy the simple food items we seek in the confines of a single store.[SIGNUP]

When I found out I was moving to the U.S. several years ago, one of the most exciting enticements was the fabulous American grocery store. (I do realize this is a sad testament of how low my expectations in life must sound.) I fondly remember visiting my snowbird grandparents in Florida and being awestruck by the gigantic Winn Dixie with such a mind-blowing selection that hot sauces had a mile-long aisle of their own. Growing up in Canada, we used to cross the border on occasion to shop and would hit the grocery store on the way home to stock up on cool American breakfast cereals, chocolate bars and other delicacies that were advertised on Saturday morning television and only available south of the border. Those American grocery stores made our stores at home look like sad backwoods outposts. Later, I spent a number of years on a remote island where food arrives on container ships in limited quantities after some god-forsaken journey at sea. This is why I get excited about vast selections of food for sale in clean, well-lit, convenient locations with friendly American staff. Then I moved to Bryn Mawr.

My first stop when I arrived here was a small, centrally located store that I’ll call “Smack Me” (for shopping there), where there were some particularly nasty cashiers. I hoped this was just a quick convenience mart, like a 7-Eleven, and the real grocery store was concealed down a nearby side street. Imagine my disappointment to find that was not the case. I try to avoid that particular place like the plague, but nobody else seems to. The checkout lines in there are hard to believe. And I’ve yet to go in there and find what I’m looking for: G&Ts are part of the Main Line social fabric, but Smack Me doesn’t even stock tonic water all the time. And after shopping there, I really need a drink.

I discovered there are indeed a handful of other grocery stores, but none of them are much better. Not one of them has the selection or is well stocked enough to be a single destination. And none of them appears particularly clean or appealing at all. Trader Joe’s is exempt from my tirade, by the way. Whole Foods is not. It seems to be universally agreed upon that we have the worst Whole Foods on our side of the Blue Route that anyone has ever seen. The selection is woefully limited. The layout is a nightmare. The parking lot is worse. I heard rumors that it’s expanding. Let’s cross our fingers that they overhaul the whole thing.

I drive all over the place on grocery day. I go all the way to an abysmal big-box chain in Wynnewood for things like paper products and cleaning supplies. (Love their PA system with its announcements of every single phone call the store receives.) Then I hit a few other places, including a farmers’ market, and finally brave the Whole Foods for odds and ends. It turns shopping into a major chore. And let’s take this opportunity to mention the obscene prices. A field trip to Broomall is all you need to see that we’re being gouged. When my mother from Canada (no bargains to be found up there) finds our prices high, you know something is wrong.

If we only had a Wegmans, or one really good modern supermarket, it would be such a massive success. I have friends that actually drive to Phoenixville for groceries. Recently, there’s been an ongoing mass pilgrimage of local moms in SUVs heading to the new Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting. When buying groceries becomes a destination event, it’s just crazy.

I rant about this to my friends. I can’t believe an area with so much going for it settles for such low quality in basic services. One friend suggests it’s the Main Line parochial mentality. “That’s the way it’s always been, so that’s the way it should remain.” All I can say is these people really need to tour a Winn Dixie in Florida. And if you see a crazed woman on the news that took a grocery store manager hostage because they were sold out of tonic water for three weeks straight, it just might be me.