They have eschewed a fancy environment and an unlimited selection in favor of carefully chosen products, lower prices and friendly, helpful service. They were one of the first to practice "meal solutions," a marketing technique that involves a kiosk where samples of a recipe, prepared on site, are offered to the customer, along with the convenience of the recipe and all the ingredients necessary to make it.
In order to compete, most stores are upgrading their in-house brands. We did a taste testing for chicken broths from our three major markets and compared them to Swansons which we have always regarded as the best, even though the priciest. Surprise, it came in second to the considerably cheaper Pavillion's house brand (marketed with the Safeway label). After Swanson's was Albertsons, then last was Ralphs. All the store labels were comparably priced.
Here are a few other supermarket products that we think are as good or better than any deli, bakery or home kitchen can produce: Pomi is the best brand for pureed tomatoes, it really tastes like fresh tomatoes are supposed to taste; Maruchan's fresh yaki soba noodles with sauce, found in the cold case at Ralph's, are the basis for a quick, easy and delicious dinner dish with the addition of chicken, shrimp, pork and/or veggies; Mountain High full fat plain yogurt is rich, creamy and less acidic than most and Bubbie's Pickles are as good as Terry's grandmother's.
The supermarket in Laguna's future may include a Shopping Buddy, already used in the Northeast, which enables you to download your shopping list and keep track of your total.
You can punch in your order to the deli and the device will beep when it's ready. It has a map of the store so you can find things easily and allows you to scan your groceries, bag them and check out in a special fast lane.
Kroger's (Ralph's east of the Rockies) sells gasoline, Giant Super Foods in the Mid-Atlantic states has a staff nutritionist available for consultations and Publix in Florida has car-shaped carts for children equipped with small screens that run episodes of kids' TV shows.
A lady from Cardiff complains in her blog that the new supermarket technology may have gone too far. In her produce department there is an automatic mister and just before it goes on, you hear the sound of thunder and smell the scent of fresh rain. When you approach the dairy case, there is the sound of cows mooing and the smell of melted butter. So far, she hasn't dared to go down the toilet paper aisle.
Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.