What America buys at the supermarket

Grocery stores keep track of the things their customers buy, including the items that are subjects of ballot measures in Washington state.

Grocery stores keep track of the things their customers buy, including the items that are subjects of ballot measures in Washington state.

Those scanners at the grocery store, they ingest bar codes. You might worry that Safeway knows when you've switched brands of peanut butter, but it's the big picture they capture, and it's depressing. 

Americans spent almost $300 billion at supermarkets in the past year. (The details, by dollar sales in 299 categories, are here.) Now, supermarkets account for about half of all spending on food, but it's the only sector of the food industry (which also includes restaurants, farmers markets, convenience stores, and so on) that has the infrastructure to track every penny we spend. 

Not surprisingly, if you think about it, the number one item, about $12 billion, is carbonated beverages (Coke, Pepsi, and their cousins; bottled water and juices are counted separately). Milk and bread come in second and third, roughly $10 billion apiece. "Salty snacks" are fourth, with $8.4 billion in sales, and that doesn't include crackers (number 16), cookies (17), snack bars & granola (37), or pastries and doughnuts (46). 

You want vegetables? Fresh, they're number 30 on the list, $2.4 billion a year. Frozen, they're at 42nd, $1.8 billion.

Dog food comes in 22nd, $3 billion, and cat food at 35, $2 billion. Dog & cat litter (112) are only worth about $630 million, lagging far behind toilet tissue (25, $3 billion) and diapers (#73, $1.1 billion). Trash bags? They're in 54th place, good for $1.4 billion.

There's something instructive here for Washington state, which is facing a couple of momentous questions: whether to invalidate the tax on soda pop, and whether to allow the sale of liquor in grocery stores. 

The American Beverage Association, which represents the carbonated-beverage industry, has written checks for $7 million to support I-1107, the soda-pop tax rollback. Disingenuously, their website is called "Stop Grocery Taxes." 

Now, on to alcohol. Beer accounts for $8 billion a year in supermarket sales, 5th place. Wine is in 9th place, $5.7 billion (just ahead of cigarettes, $4.8 billion). But what about liquor and spirits, sold in supermarkets in three dozen states? A relatively low 31st place, a mere $2.25 billion in sales, beaten by refrigerated coleslaw, frozen novelties, laundry detergents and, yup, those fresh veggies. That's right, even when they stock the booze next to the broccoli, American shoppers still buy more Tide than Tanqueray. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).