Passing mustard: limiting choice may sound crazy, but its a key strategy in German Grocer Lidl's appeal to shoppers.

Author:Otterbourg, Ken

A confession: Every once in a while, I go into the condiment aisle at my supermarket and stare at all the mustards. Only after I curse and bless America and its abundance of choice do I begin counting. All the brands, all the sizes, every SKU. The latest count at my Harris Teeter: Ninety-four.

At the new Lidl, it's just seven.

There is a grand and important battle unfolding this summer in North Carolina's supermarkets. Change is afoot. The competition is getting tougher--i.e. Publix and Wegmans--and also more diverse. There is pressure from below, as discount grocer Lidl begins its Teutonic expansion up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and from above, now that Amazon is about to buy Whole Foods and direct its e-commerce expertise toward the sale of organic greens.

Except for the very wealthy, grocery shopping is unavoidable, and where and how we shop says a lot about the value and order we assign to time, money, quality and status.

And it matters to the economy. There are still two largish independent supermarket chains based in North Carolina: Lowes Foods, based in Winston-Salem, and Ingles, based in Asheville. Harris Teeter is now part of Kroger, and The Fresh Market's new private-equity owners are trying to quickly turn it into a full-service supermarket. Regardless of ownership, these retailers employ thousands, pay taxes and are often the lifeblood of shopping centers--they are called anchor tenants for a reason.

I'm not suggesting that we will witness the death of the big American supermarket in the next five years, but the ground is shifting. Only 2% of U.S. grocery shopping is digital. The runway is long, but the water only flows one way. Think back to bookstores, the first retail industry that Amazon gutted. Many people believed books were web-resistant, protected by the physical pleasure of browsing. They were wrong.

I was wrong. People still read/and, they still browse (or an app makes recommendations for them), bit for the most part, big bookstores are a dung of the past.

You can imagine a...

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