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Why is yet another grocery store coming to Concord?

  • Lee Laughlin loading her car with groceries from Market Basket on Fort Eddy Road in Concord on Thursday, March 18, 2021. MELISSA CURREN / Monitor staff

  • Delores Bradner unloading her cart full of groceries at the Aldi store on Loudon Road in Concord on Thursday. MELISSA CURREN / Monitor staff

  • Gary Chisholm of Allenstown waits for the bus that takes him back after doing his shopping at the Market Basket on Storrs Street in Concord. Chisholm comes to the grocery store every Thursday when the bus gets him to do his shopping. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gary Chisholm of Allenstown waits for the bus that takes him back after doing his weekly shopping at the Market Basket on Storrs Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Hannaford grocery store on Fort Eddy Road in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Graphic shows count of chain grocery stores within city relative to the city's population size. Note that for clarity, stores are not in their actual locations but are withing the bounds of their city.

  • The Walmart Superstore on Loudon Road is open the latest for getting groceries. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/20/2021 1:02:19 PM

When news came that a grocery store was finally going to be built in Penacook after a decade of discussion, some people celebrated. But others were puzzled.

“Does Concord want to have the highest per capita grocery store concentration in New England?” asked Malia Ebel of Sunapee in a letter to the editor in the Monitor.

Ebel pointed out that this store will be the third Market Basket in the city limits and the sixth chain grocery store in the city, adding: “Does Concord need this?”

The letter actually underplayed the situation: The Penacook store will be Concord’s eighth chain grocery store. But that doesn’t mean the Capitol City is terribly unusual.

On a per-capita basis, in fact, it’s not even state champ. Bedford has more grocery stores: One for every 4,241 people, compared to one for every 6,207 people in Concord. (This counts only chain stores that sell a complete range of grocery items, including Wal-Mart, and not independents like the Concord Food Co-Op or smaller stores that sell some food, so your calculation may vary.)

But this does raise a question. In a state that has an increasing number ways to get our food, from farm stands to specialty markets to home delivery, do we still need 100,000-square-foot buildings full of every conceivable type of grocery item stuck in the middle of big parking lots?

Still popular

Judging from shopping habits, yes we do.

“I am anxiously awaiting the one at Exit 17. I really want a big store like Tilton has,” Lee Laughlin said as she shopped at the Market Basket in Fort Eddy Plaza.

She’s not alone.

“Most people get most of their groceries from a grocery store or a supercenter that has groceries,” said Jess Carson, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy. “Even with specialty shops, convenience stores, dollar stores, it’s still grocery stores by a clear margin.”

Carson is confident in this statement because she wrote a 2019 research paper, “Mapping the Food Landscape in New Hampshire” that tallied data about everything from CSA’s to school lunch programs to supermarkets.

The spread of chain grocery stores is part of a long-term trend, she said, that has seen the decline of grocery stores smaller than about 40,000 square feet and independents, including IGA stores linked via the Independent Grocers Alliance. They have been squeezed by the buying power and logistic efficiencies of regional or national chains.

The few exceptions to the bigger-is-more-successful model have also been national chains such as Trader Joe’s, usually smaller than 15,000 square feet, or global chains such as Aldi’s, which is based in Germany.

“New Hampshire has seen this longer-term trend around grocery stores that has looked a lot like it does nationally,” Carson said. “Places are losing their smaller stores, seeing them consolidating to become the big providers in the larger towns and cities. Sometimes dollar stores and convenience stores pop up to fill some of the gaps in say a Gorham area or a Whitefield area,” but that tends to be a poor substitute for a balanced diet.

Carson compiled her report because of continuing food insecurity “even in a relatively well-off state like New Hampshire.” Particularly north of the White Mountains but also in parts of Connecticut River Valley or the Lakes Region, it’s not uncommon for people to be an hour’s drive away from a full-sized grocery store.

Why Concord?

Even if Concord isn’t quite the most grocery-filled city in the state, it’s still pretty crowded. Why?

“I’m not entirely sure,” said Carson. “It could be there’s a draw from other regions, that it’s a gatekeeper city for people.”

“Population density tends to be a particular good indicator of where grocery stores are located,” she said. “It does have higher income, a little bit more money, and it’s walkable.”

That last point is debatable. One of the aspects of ever-larger grocery stores such as the Penacook proposal is that they are too big to be tucked into neighborhoods. They get located in plazas that can be easily reached only by driving there, which goes against Concord’s goal to cut its overall greenhouse-gas emissions.

Concord has long served the role of retail hub for a big chunk of central New Hampshire, especially from the north and west, so it makes sense that grocers would want to expand here.

And as for why Market Basket would want to put a third store in a small city, you’d have to ask them – but Market Basket is famously tight-lipped about business operations and won’t tell you. The Massachusetts-based company operates only in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts but has 84 stores and has done well in recent years, especially since the highly publicized 2014 fight for control of the company between the two cousins named Arthur Demoulas, which saw an unusual outpouring of support for “Arthur T” as CEO.

Finally, there’s the big question mark hanging over this industry, like virtually all industries: What will be the long-term effects of the pandemic?

“As far as COVID landscape goes, we don’t really know yet how that’s going to permanently alter the grocery landscape, if it does,” said Carson.

The explosive growth in home delivery of groceries by people worried about catching coronavirus in the store has further favored large chains, which have more technology and logistics expertise. Less clear is who will benefit from the scrambling of global supply networks caused by the pandemic; it’s possible that erratic supplies of everything from toilet paper to citrus may undermine the appeal of big chain stores and make people happier with local foods and local stores. Only time will tell.

(Melissa Curran contributed to this story. David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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