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Why Are Fancy Groceries Madhouses, But Regular Chains Humming Along As Usual?

Fancy grocery stores like Trader Joe’s in affluent neighborhoods have lines out the door, regular stores, not so much.


Different types of people handle situations differently, especially when it comes to stuff like a pandemic of a deadly Wuhan virus. But in New York City and elsewhere, an interesting pattern is emerging in regard to fancy chain grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods which have been picked over like a carcass and still have long lines. Meanwhile, regular neighborhood chain stores have a few shortages, but are operating pretty normally.

The evidence is anecdotal, but it’s reflected on social media as well. I went to my local grocery this morning and there were a few people hoarding, but it wasn’t packed, it was well stocked, and seemed to be humming along.

Over at Trader Joe’s, multiple news reports have made the popular millennial hot spot sound like a post apocalyptic hellscape.

Here is video of the line inside one Manhattan location.

There is probably more than one reason that these differences are occurring, but it seems highly likely that the dispositions and incomes of the two sets of customers are playing a role in the run on Trader Joe’s and the slow steady traffic of old school grocers. The former are almost all in affluent sections of the city, the latter more often in middle and lower middle class neighborhoods.

But it’s not just in New York City.

There is something to be said for the fact that more affluent people may be paying closer attention to the virus, but before we get to that, there are a few practical reasons this could be happening.

The first is income. New Yorkers who aren’t wealthy are not known for being swimming in savings. For many, the idea of dropping $500 right now for a stockpile would interfere with tight budgets. Another factor is space, people in small apartments don’t have storage for 27 twelve packs of toilet paper. And small apartments mean small fridges and freezers compared to those in new luxury buildings.

But it’s not completely off base to point to some psychological differences as well. For one thing, white collar professionals are far more likely to have jobs that allow them to stay tuned in constantly to the updates that cause anxiety and panic buying. The wage-worker, who isn’t on a device all day, is watching a severe pandemic occur, but not in a constant cascade of panic. The affluent in these areas also tend to be more progressive than middle class New Yorkers, and the progressive media has leaned very hard into the worst possible outcomes, whether for political reasons or not.

Whatever the reasons for the disparity, there seems to be two different realities playing out in the city regarding the Wuhan virus. Everyone might be taking precautions, but in different ways across socio-economic lines.

In the working class neighborhoods rules and advice from officials are being followed, but not exceeded to the point of baring the the shelves of the stores. Ultimately, this is probably a much more responsible approach, as local stores will have better control of their supply lines.

It’s a tale of two cities, one experiences a bit of a panic-driven freak out and another takes a more measured approach. I find myself in the latter camp, and I could be wrong, but at least I won’t be spending two hours on line at Whole Foods.