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A Topography of American Grocery Shopping
Tell me where you shop, and I'll tell you where you are
Tell me where you do your grocery shopping, and I'll tell you where you are. Well, more or less. For even in a huge and homogenised market like the United States, many large grocery chains are still recognisably regional brands.
As shown by this kaleidoscopic overview of grocery brands, each with at least 200 outlets across the US, their diverse geography could be mistaken for a natural ecosystem.
Like species of flora and fauna, most of these brands seem uniquely adapted to a local environment, where they can defend a competitive advantage, avoiding competitors who do the same elsewhere. But that principle only applies to the more difficult terrain. Certain stomping grounds offer such rich pickings that several brands compete fiercely on the same turf.
And then there are one or two super-adaptive, invasive species who thrive anywhere, and threaten to overgrow the entire playing field. Like Walmart – the Japanese knotweed of food retailing. If you're inside one of their big boxes, you could be just about anywhere from Maine to Miami, from Seattle to San Diego, and anywhere in between.
So what exactly do the dots on this distribution chart tell us? Only three chains have the omnipresence to be called 'national'. Three more stake their claim out west. Another three are bi-coastal. All the others have their centre of gravity in the country's eastern half. Not surprising, since 60% of America's 310 million consumers live east of the Mississippi.
Named after Samuel Walton, the same guy who founded Walmart, this chain of membership-only retail warehouse clubs is still owned by Walmart. This may explain its national reach, which is nevertheless a bit thin on the ground, compared to the other two national chains.
Founded and still headquartered in Minneapolis, Target is the largest discount retailer in the US except Walmart. But the difference between 1 and 2 is staggering: Walmart had a 2012 turnover of almost $470 billion, while Target had to make do with sales just under $75 million. As proven by this map: Targets are clustered around the big metropolitan areas, but are a lot less prevalent elsewhere.
Contrary to popular belief, there isn't a Walmart in every county of the United States. Numerically, it's possible: there are 3,144 counties (or equivalents such as boroughs and parishes) in the US and 4,777 Walmarts (of which 500 in Texas alone). But they are unevenly spread: for North Dakota's 53 counties, there are only 15 Walmarts, for example. Still, Walmarts are a good indicator for overall population density: thick in the east, thin in the west, except the West Coast and a few isolated big cities.
In March this year, Albertsons and Safeway announced their engagement to be merged. This might seem strange, as both are 'western' chains. But they're still quite complementary: Albertsons is present in Florida, Louisiana and Texas, where Safeways isn't. The complementarity is greatest in California, with Albertsons heavily represented in the south, and Safeways in the north.
Fresh & Easy was founded in El Segundo in 2007 and experienced rapid growth, hitting over 200 stores throughout California, Nevada and Arizona. But the owners, UK-based Tesco, announced they were to withdraw from the US market. The chain has since filed for bankruptcy.
A western chain, with tight concentrations of stores throughout northern California, coastal Oregon and Washington, and the urban centres of Arizona and Colorado. And, eccentrically, a big concentration in and around Washington DC. All indeed fairly complementary to Albertsons.
Sometimes dubbed the 'Anti-Walmart' because it pays its workers above-competition wages and benefits, Costco also goes out of its way to select its middle-management from its own ranks. Talking about cradle-to-grave care: Costco apparently does a decent range of coffins. Virtue doesn't pay, by the way: while Walmart sprouts up just about anywhere, CostCo is concentrated on the West Coast and the BosWash corridor in the East, with only a few dapples in between.
Trader Joe's has been described as not so much a specialty grocery store than a “tiki-themed wonderland filled with pyramids of Cookie Butter jars and Two Buck Chuck”. Trader Joe's stocks about 4,000 items instead of your average grocery store's 50,000, but over 80% of them are own-brand products. Sounds like a lot of work. Which may explain why these follow the same sparse distribution pattern than CostCo, but seem even fewer and further between. Half of its over 400 stores are in California.
You know your neighbourhood has gentrified when a Wholefoods spaceship lands. Soon, the streets will be swarming with hipsters nibbling natural and organic foods, rent will be unaffordable and you'll have to follow the meat eaters and candy munchers to other, grimmer districts. If you want to keep ahead of the pack: go rural. For all its emphasis on honest, back-to-nature fare, Wholefoods is concentrated solely in the big, bad cities.
Aldi has famously divided Germany, and the rest of the world in two. Outside the Heimat, Aldi Nord runs the Benelux, Denmark, France, Spain, Portugal and Poland (or at least the Aldi stores in those countries). Aldi Süd operates across the UK and Ireland, Austria and Hungary, Switzerland, Slovenia and Australia. Both operate in the US, however: Aldi Süd under the Aldi flag; Aldi Nord owns Trader Joe – effectively creating an Aldi East and and Aldi West.
Why the strange acronym? Well, this chain was founded by Howard E. Butt. Say no more. Despite only operating in Texas (and northern Mexico), H-E-B ranks as America's 12th largest private company (and the biggest one in Texas). Its mascot is H-E-Buddy, a life-sized, life-endowed grocery bag. The company donates 5% of its pre-tax profits to charity, but used to be even more religious: until 1976, it didn't sell alcohol and closed on Sundays.
As can be seen on the map, Hy-Vee is an Iowa thing, but it has spread to adjacent areas in neighbouring states, as far south as Branson, Missouri (or at least that's where that dot seems to be).
Another chain with a clear, albeit somewhat larger domain: a big cluster in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, a seeping into the South, with major outposts in Atlanta and the big Texas cities. The Pennsylvania state line acts as a magic border to northeasterly expansion.
It probably shows my age, but I can't see this name without chuckling about the Try-N-Save in The Simpsons. There may be a Springfield in every state, but there isn't a Save-A-Lot in every Springfield. Excellent coverage east of the Mississippi (although, strangely, not a single one in Vermont) petering out on the other side of the Big Muddy. A smattering of stores in Denver, across southern California and two pinpricks in Oregon and Washington. But that doesn't really count as trying.
As South Carolinian as Hy-Vee is Iowan, also with the same slight growth outside the state: a handful of stores in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Almost made it into Alabama.
The Food Lion roams the Mid-Atlantic states, from Maryland to South Carolina, and inland as far as mid-Tennessee and southern Kentucky. You're most likely to come across this species in Maryland, North Carolina and the dark-blue north of Virginia.
Is this where the verb 'teetering' comes from? This chain is competing for North Carolina and DC with Food Lion, but is very much in the minority.
Publix' distribution pattern closely mirrors Florida's population centres: both coasts, and the Orlando corridor. The northward spread is concentrated on Atlanta, and Nashville. All stores south of the infamous Parallel 36°30′ north.
Purely from a geographic point of view, an ideal candidate for merger with Publix. Piggly Wiggly is absent from Florida, but much stronger throughout most of the South. Memphis-founded and retaining a strong Southern flair, Piggly Wiggly has a few outposts further afield – as far north as Minnesota, on the Canadian border.
Again, judging solely from the map, an arch enemy of Publix: competing for the same turf in Florida – but on the other hand, absent from most of Georgia, all of South Carolina (except for that one, lonely dot) and Tennessee.
The Giant Eagle spreads its wings across Ohio and Pennsylvania. Two dots elsewhere, but still close by: one in West Viriginia, the other in Maryland.
Stretching from Richmond, Virginia to the borders of New Jersey, Giant Food seems to make its stand in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia. Its habitat is curiously compatible with that of the other small giant.
If you're in a ShopRite, you could be anywhere between DC and NYC, but not many other places. ShopRite territory takes in all of New Jersey, extends a bit up the Hudson Valley and into Pennsylvania, and seems to have overrun most of Connecticut, but that's it.
Stop & Shop territory partly overlaps with ShopRite, but starts and ends more to the north: halfway up New Jersey to southern New Hampshire – so also including Boston – and in fact all of Massachusetts.
Barring a single shop in what looks like New York City, Weis Markets is an inland phenomenon, covering the eastern two thirds of Pennsylvania, a tiny bit of western New York state, the western edges of New Jersey and the middle of Maryland, plus Washington DC and a small foray into Virginia.
Many thanks to Nathan Yau, who produced this map for Flowing Data, his excellent blog on the visualisation of data in statistics, design and data science. He has an abiding interest in the geography of food. See also his posts on food deserts, coffee geography and that enduring rivalry, bars vs. grocery stores.
Please note that this article was first published in 2014, with some figures and maps likely to have become outdated.
Strange Maps #660
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.
Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it's face-to-face.
- New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you're in disagreeable conversations.
- Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
- The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.
There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad. | Jonathan Haidt<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6f0e52833af5d35adab591bb92d79f8e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/l-_yIhW9Ias?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Unsurprisingly, harmonious synchronization of brain states occurred when volunteers agreed, similar to <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322764116_Creativity_and_Flow_in_Surgery_Music_and_Cooking_An_Interview_with_Neuroscientist_Charles_Limb" target="_blank">group flow</a>—the coordination of brain waves that hip-hop and jazz musicians (among others) experience when performing together. Coordination exceeds the social, into the neurological. As the team writes, "talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions."</p><p>This contrasts with argumentative behavior, in which "the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement."</p><p>Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210113090938.htm" target="_blank">she says</a>, "it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree," comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music. </p><p>As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent. </p>
People of the "left-wing" side yell at a Trump supporter during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images<p>Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you're screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.</p><p>The researchers point out that seeing faces causes complex neurological reactions that must be interpreted in real-time. For example, gazing into someone's eyes requires higher-order processing that must be dealt with during the moment. Your brain coordinates to make sense of the words being spoken <em>and</em> pantomimes being witnessed. This combination of verbal and visual processes are "generally associated with high-level cognitive and linguistic functions."</p><p>While arguing is more exhausting, it also sharpens your senses—when a person is present, at least. Debating is a healthy function of society. Arguments force you to consider other viewpoints and potentially come to different conclusions. As with physical exercise, which makes you stronger even though it's energetically taxing, disagreement propels societies forward.</p>In this study, every participant was forced to <em>listen</em> to the other person. As this research was focused on live interactions, it adds to the literature of cognitive processing during live interactions and offers insights into the cognitive tax of anger. Even anger is a net positive when it forces both sides to think through their thoughts and feelings on a matter. As social animals, we need that tension in our lives in order to grow. Yelling into the void of a comments section? Not so helpful. <p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
In a joint briefing at the 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, NASA and NOAA revealed 2020's scorching climate data.