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Superstores as Adult Playgrounds

Updated Published
The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FIU chapter.

How Grocery stores fit into Third Place theory and what it means for consumer-based socialization

My mom, without fail, used to sit in her driver’s seat and apply lipstick in the rearview mirror every time we parked outside a grocery store, ready to fill up the trunk with the groceries for the week. I would stand outside my passenger door impatiently. Every time, she said it was because Lenny Kravitz could be on aisle 8. I knew this was her saying, “You never know who you could meet.”

What is a Third Place?

According to Third Place Theory, a space for gathering strengthens a community’s connections to one another outside of a professional or domestic sphere.

Places that exist outside of the home and workplace that are usually family-friendly and accessible to most people were referenced as “community builders” by Brookings in 2016. These oftentimes meet at least one of our basic human needs (food, refreshments, shelter) and may cater to niche or target audiences. Think gay clubs and cigar lounges; who are the target social circles?

Disappearance of Third Places

Whether it’s through gentrification projects brought on by high-end retailers, lifestyle brands, and expensive membership-only associations, or luxury housing that’s taking over the real estate market, inclusive community orientation has shut down across urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Big-box stores encourage customers to contribute to consumerism, but not as a requirement for admittance. The social factor usually comes naturally for people picking up a few items on their way home or who are running errands for the week.

Superstores as Adult Playgrounds 

Often non-secular and non-discriminatory in nature, supermarkets appeal to a wide customer base. Loitering is encouraged, and no one will stop you from browsing (I guess that’s the advantage of a corporation).

These behaviors are normalized and socially acceptable amongst most cultures and families, and they serve as a crucial part of our spheres of influence (no auntie turns her nose up at you going out to the “store”). For some of us with strict family structures, it provides us with somewhat of an escape from our homes.

Many stores, such as Target, Walmart, and Publix, offer lunch cafes, coffee shops, and even cafeterias inside their stores, doubling the social impact on their consumer base. Grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and The Fresh Market have a reputation for serving a customer base from a cushier socioeconomic background, contributing to social stratification based on consumer expenditures.

Internet personality She Ra Seven, who hosts live Q+As with viewers looking for “providers”, references the “old money part of town” as a perfect starting place to meet rich older men. In videos such as “Different Places to Meet Men with Money”, she advises her viewers: “Go to the grocery store in the morning.”, presumably after morning errands are completed. Grocery aisles and check-out lines are great forced proximity conversation starters and provide easily accessible windows of opportunity for connection.

First In-City Experience

I remember deciding to make my first in-city grocery shopping spree one afternoon, putting on a nice outfit and jewelry, doing my hair and makeup. With low expectations, I got in my car and drove 20 minutes to an organic grocery store in a part of town I rarely frequented. A woman pushing her cart past me in the wine aisle recommended an amazing Aperol Spritz; another showed me where her favorite desserts were. Another shopper helped me move my bags into the elevator and we chatted about our respective work. This was my imminent future as a functioning member of a capitalist society. Part of the realization came from remembering this as part of my mother’s and most adults’ eventual social sphere outside of their full-time jobs in the city and their homes in suburbia. 

Spend or Swim

But what happens if we continue to rely on these institutions for our socialization and if we let them further into our sphere of influence?

Large chain grocery stores offer a wide range of places to visit under one roof.

People usually don’t walk in unprompted and think, “Okay, I have to buy something before I leave.” Consumers are more likely to walk in bored, thinking they need something, and become enticed or pressured into buying something.

“Join the club.” “Try this.” “So many people love this popular item.” “You don’t want to miss out.” Companies offer an array of miscellaneous products, almost making a spectacle of how easily they can corral regular customers by making the shopping experience manageable for any age, ability, religion, race, gender, or sexuality. With the addition of different sections, there’s less pressure to consume and more influence to passively socialize. But usually, these amenities are only offered in locations where spending and consumer power reign supreme or places dedicated to the enticement of experience and connection. Existing as spaces safe from the outside elements, with advertised euphoria achieved through shopping, superstores secure their place on the map as a popular third place behind the home and the workplace.

Alex Peek (she/they) is a staff writer at Florida International University's Her Campus chapter. They cover sociological perspectives and analyzes pop culture phenomena through a queer and women-centric lens. Around South Florida, Alex has worked in early education, historical-cultural preservation at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives, event management with FIU's Pride Student Union, teaching ESL and peer mentorship through FIU's Honors College, and amongst the film industry at FilmGate Miami. A recent FIU graduate, she completed her final semester as an International Relations major, where she studied Women and Gender, Exile, Human Rights and Political Transitions. In May 2022, Alex had the privilege to travel with FIU’s Honors College to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In 2023, they received a Book Award from FIU's Department of Politics and International Relations. Alex grew up in Northeast Florida with family originating from Puerto Rico. After spending her first two semesters remotely from home, obsessing over Star Wars and Pedro Pascal, she moved to Miami in mid-2021. Follow her on Instagram for more updates: @alex_peek