GUEST COLUMN – Trying to untangle the logic of grocery store names

(Image: Mel Rothenburger)

Guest columnist

THERE’S A PHENONENON happening in our midst.  It isn’t about some pandemic related concern, or anything to do with circumstances surrounding someone else’s elections, or even some heady philosophical debate surrounding the definition of post truth. It is far more mundane, pedestrian even.

David Johnson.

It starts with a story.

The other day, we went shopping at Fresh Street Market at the old Sears spot at Aberdeen Mall.  We enjoyed a meandering perusal and price check.  Some of the prices are over the top (almost $5 for a 180g’s of potato chips … really?), but others were very reasonable.  We took a liking to the bakery department, pre-marinaded meat department, hot deli, Tika Masala bar and Sushi counter.

We left satisfied and as we walked to the car, we were talking about what we saw, and a sentence one of us were in the middle of, required saying the name of the store … and to remember it, we actually had to turn around and look at the sign … Fresh Street Market, it said.

I mean … we were just in there, why couldn’t we remember the name one minute later?

Later at home she was on the phone telling a friend of our excursion, and she had to turn to me and ask “What’s the name of it again?” then she said in the phone “Fresh Street Market … whatever that means.” I had to check the receipt to get this right.

This left me thinking … what’s going on here?

Recently the two of us have found ourselves oddly confused about the names given to some new chains of grocery stores.  Is it us?  Why can’t we assimilate easily to these new branding and store naming conventions?

In past decades we didn’t seem to have a problem remembering Safeway, Coopers, London Drugs or Costco. These are brand names with fairly unique nomenclatures, they stood alone in the market as … well … words one would not otherwise normally come across.  Easy to remember.

This is branding and naming in a way that stands out, or at least means nothing else; Nike, McDonalds, Coke, Glad … the list goes on. You know what they are, because no one else uses the word.

These branded words have no direct descriptive correlation to the product,
but we know exactly what they make or what they do.

There is another angle of past grocery branding that sells from a different direction, be it money; Save On, Buy-Low, Super Valu, Budget Foods, Shop and Save, Price Smart, etc.  Brands that remind in the name itself that savings can be found.  This too is a marketable convention.

Somewhat more recently a newer type of store has emerged and the brand name is geared to the specific market that they want to attract; Whole Foods, Urban Fare.  These are more upscale, with a focus on health-oriented products, with the emphasis on alternative foodstuffs and organic.

All of the above makes sense, brand names following specific directions or trends in an attempt to attract a given demographic, or they would call it something completely unique.

Occasionally a weird one pops up like Overwaitea … really?  Are ya telling me I need to go on a diet or something?  Now, I know the name Overwaitea comes from the original store’s old school practice of selling 18 ounces of tea for the price of 16 ounces, hence the name ‘Over-weight tea’, but still, such a name really hasn’t worked since tea was put in single use bags. Intelligently, the Pattison Group changed course on this and all stores are now called Save-On.

In the last few years, we have seen a new trend that does not follow historic naming conventions.

(Image: Mel Rothenburger)

When Extra Foods re-badged as Independent Grocers at North Hills Mall here in Kamloops, my first thought was ‘independent of what? Ooohhh … ‘, as I realized it’s an independently owned but franchised chain in the Loblaw family … I get it, it’s trying to garner the grocery buying market that cares about the business structure of the store.  An attempt to warm up to those shoppers that the concept of ‘buy local’ and ‘ma and pop stores’ actually mean something in the big box grocery  market.

Wait … does this idea even exist when considering the square footage of our Independent Grocers Store?  Isn’t ‘buy local’ and ‘ma and pop’ supposed to be about the local corner store or the farmers market?  Furthermore, do people shop at a big store BECAUSE the name insinuates a non-corporate business approach?  Certainly, I doubt it is the reason people shop there.  It’s probably just close to home, and that’s all.

This happens to be our closest grocery store; it has the basics we need.  Knowing the corporate structure by way of the brand name does not attract my business, their veggies do. The owner’s corporate independence does not make their veggies taste better. I just buy them.

The day it opened with the new name, my wife and I looked at each other and said “let’s just call it Extra Foods.”  We were not going to play ball. From that day onward, to each other we refer to it as ‘Extra Foods,’ even if in polite company we need to call it by its actual name … lest we be seen as the odd ones out … maybe we are.  To us even Extra Foods was a bit out there … extra what?

Since then, the Safeway in Sahali switched and became a ‘Fresh Co’.  This branding suggests that everything is ‘FRESH’ and it’s a ‘CO’.  Well … how nice.  Oddly in this particular store, the ‘FRESH’ component is kinda lacking.  The veg selection is small, as is the fresh meat row, but boy do they ever have a wonderful freezer section full of the most amazing international frozen … foods … wait a sec. ‘FRESH CO.’  Did I miss something?

Not only is the nomenclature of this brand name so explicitly flat, generic and unremarkable, it’s not even a descriptive of the focus of what is in the store.  Even the interior colour of the store (safety vest florescent green) is supposed to make me think fresh … or something?

Ya, no, it doesn’t, but they sell great freezer food.

The wife and I?  We’ll call it ‘Safeway Sahali’ from now on … or maybe ‘the green freezer store’.
The name ‘FRESH CO’ just doesn’t mean anything to us, and once I finish writing this, and close the google page kept open to remind me, I’ll probably forget the brand name again.  That alone is a branding fail.

Now in Aberdeen we have the new ‘Fresh Street Market’.  When we discussed going up there, my early days confusion actually made me say “Let’s go to the Fresh Market Co Street … Fresh … store.”

Another instant branding fail.

We went, and we like it and have chosen to privately moniker it, in the way we do … as ‘Whole Foods’.  It’s not Whole Foods, we know that, nor is it even like a Whole Foods, but it’s about as close as Kamloops is going to get to a real Whole Foods at this stage, so for us, it earns this label.

So, what’s going on here?

Why have huge conglomerate corporations gone the direction of Independent, Fresh Co and Fresh Street Market branding? I have to assume that focus groups voted that ‘fresh’ is an important branding attribute, and ‘market’ is emotionally aligned with ‘farmers market’ and there’s probably a raft of studies backing it up.

It’s as if there was a tornado of ideology and a conveyor of movement in this direction which occurred in a marketing vacuum, and once there … the idea of standing out in the crowd with a unique brand name people will actually identify with … was lost. All that’s left is this odd use of adjectives left out there on the sign, without individual context.

Calling a grocery store just ‘Fresh’,
is like someone starting a competitor to McDonalds,
but actually calling it ‘Hot and Round’,
or following the idea for Independent Grocers;
‘Corporate Overlord Minimum Wage Worksite Burgers’.

There seems to be this push towards potentially related adjectives, and corporate arrangement branding, and using them alone in the branded names, like that’s all it needs.

But how does this happen?

It’s as if focus groups were asked the wrong questions.  It suggests they were asked questions designed to reinforce words and brand names already cooked up in some pre-covid shared workspace, team building exercises and in order to justify this, they asked regular people skewed questions, like:

– “How do you feel about the word ‘Fresh’?”, or
– “Rate on a scale from one to 10 how important the word ‘Market’ is to you.”

Rather than simply ask:

– “If a store was called ‘Fresh Co’ … would you think it would be a good choice?” or
– “If you think about the names of stores in your community now, would calling a new store ‘Fresh Street Market’ make sense to you?” or even
– “When you hear the words ‘Fresh Street Market’ … do you think of it as a store?”

It seems as if these marketing gurus were more interested in pleasing the boss who paid for this round robin, word roller coaster event of a feel-good study, than calling a store something that makes sense to normal people popping out to get milk.

What’s missing is the actual consumers’ need to identify with the building and its location when considering a shopping trip.  What is lost is the real connection with an actual brand vis-a-vis … a memorable name.  What we’re left with is this plethora of nonsensical store names that will be hard to describe or chat about … without googling first to make sure we have it right.

So the next time you are headed out to the Green Freezer Store, or Whole Foods or just popping over to Extra Foods, take a look at the sign and ask yourself if the brand name there makes sense to you.

David Johnson is a Kamloops resident.

About Mel Rothenburger (9052 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

3 Comments on GUEST COLUMN – Trying to untangle the logic of grocery store names

  1. I still call it extra foods too. I think Extra Foods was way better. I feel Safeway went way down hill after Sobeys bought them. Instead of Freshco, should have rebatched it a Thifty Foods. Full Service is clearly still wanted with the new store in Aberdeen Mall. I remember when Safeway was in Aberdeen Mall

  2. interesting.
    your article reminded me of my frustration with the rebranding of charities.
    Christian Blind Mission for years became cbm is now Hope & Healing?

  3. Definitely very confusing (perplexing perhaps?) but in the “year of perplexing confusion” what else to expect?

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