Grocery store departments and aisles are organized to make it easier for shoppers to find what they need. While some chains have some unique aspects or categories, most grocery stores have similar layouts, so what are the different sections of a grocery store?
Here’s what I know from my decades of experience:
Almost all grocery stores start with the Produce department and then line the walls with Meat, Seafood, Deli & Bakery. Then the center of the store encompasses the Grocery department, along with Beer & Wine, and Health & Beauty. The Front End is where the cashiers and baggers finalize the shopping experience.
But that just scratches the surface!
Some small grocery stores are specialty stores that may sell primarily organic and healthy food. Some may have full-service meat departments with butchers.
All grocery stores, though, have certain things in common.
So in this article, we’re diving deep into grocery stores. We’ll explore the layouts, department names, why milk is always at the back of the store, and much more!
As you shop, you’ve no doubt noticed that some days the store is totally full and other days totally empty. Why is that?
Click here to read a complete guide to what days of the week grocery stores re-stock. I get into how to know, since different stores do things differently. But I also cover how you can save money by timing your shopping trips correctly!
Just keep reading!
Backed by community capital, a new locally owned grocery store & pharmacy has opened in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood, long missing a supermarket.
— Stacy Mitchell (@stacyfmitchell) May 14, 2019
What are the most common areas of a grocery store?
Grocery stores are specifically designed to make it easier for the shopper to find what they need as well as increase profits.
Many grocery stores have a deli, bakery where they make fresh cakes, or coffee shop with tables and chairs, encouraging you to hang out at the store as long as possible. Some grocery stores have floral departments while others do not.
Lots of grocery stores are mom and pop stores. These stores are usually tiny and often don’t have a butcher, if they have a meat department at all.
But there are a few things that every grocery store has in common. No matter how big or small, you’ll find that every grocery store has common categories, aisles, and areas.
Let’s start with the common areas of the grocery store.
When you first walk into the doors of your favorite grocery store, the first thing you’ll notice is the Produce department. This is where all the fruits and vegetables are. We’ll explore this and the other major departments in greater detail below.
While up at the front of the store, you’ll also likely notice what is called the Front End department.
This is usually where the cash registers are located. The customer service desk will likely be nearby as well. There may be an ATM or even a full-service bank.
Then we have what is called the perimeter departments.
These are departments that line the walls around the store. We’ll get to the interior, or center of the store in a minute.
The perimeter may include a bakery, deli, meat, seafood department, or even a coffee bar.
The perimeter is also where you’ll find your dairy products as well, typically about as far away from the front doors as possible. More on that below too.
Finally, there is always going to be a center area of the store.
This is where your general grocery items are going to be located. But it is also where you’ll find household cleaners, pet food, and other miscellaneous items.
The center of the store is typically called the Grocery department and while it doesn’t always make up the largest percentage of a store’s sales, it is the largest department in the store. It is also the one department that virtually every customer shops in.
So the Grocery department is critical to a store’s success.
The health & beauty products may also be located in the center of the store as well. This will include not only vitamins, herbal products, but also make-up and body products.
Are grocery stores designed to make you walk a certain way?
Yes, is the short answer.
Grocery stores are typically designed to encourage you to travel from the right side of the store towards the left. The next time you go to the grocery store, pay attention to where things are located.
The produce department will typically be the first department you shop in. The cooler/freezer section will likely be the last section you reach.
But while grocery stores don’t often move entire departments, it’s not uncommon for them to move products and categories from one aisle to another.
This isn’t just to annoy their shoppers (although it often does).
Curious about the psychology behind how stores are laid out, and why the change the layout? I have the answer in this recent article from my 20+ years of working for Whole Foods Market.
Just click that link to read it on my site.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) February 27, 2018
What are the most common grocery store terms?
Grocery stores can sometimes be hard to navigate, especially when you see terms like “free-range”, “organic”, “grass-fed,” and “all-natural.”
So let’s explore some of these terms one by one:
Organically grown foods
Organic food is food that is made without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other artificial treatments. They are regulated by the government and are not as common as non-organic food.
Organic food can also be more expensive. To read about the cost difference between organic and non-organic food, read this recent article.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
When purchasing beef, “grass-fed” sounds appealing, and it is great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s organic. Grass-fed beef means that the animal was pasture-raised and was not fed corn or soy.
So when you are shopping for meat, look for organic grass-fed beef with a USDA rating of at least Choice.
The FDA doesn’t have an official ruling of the term “natural” or all-natural”. Because of that, you’ll see that term on products that aren’t really all that natural.
The FDA does go on to say that they”considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”
But they are quick to point out that this general definition was not intended for “food production methods” “food processing methods” or “manufacturing methods”. They also steer clear of implying whether the term relates to health or nutrition. (source)
So basically it’s a worthless term. Check the ingredient list to make sure that the ingredients you want to avoid aren’t in that product.
But food-related terms aren’t the only terms grocery stores use.
You’ll also hear terms like “rain check,” “rebates,” “unit price,” and “end cap,” among others.
When things go on sale, they will sometimes run out. When this happens, stores will sometimes issue a rain check. That way, you can still get the sale price when the item is back in stock, even if it’s not on sale anymore. Think of it as an in-store coupon.
A rebate is a refund for a portion of your purchase.
Sometimes they are instant and applied at the register upon purchase. Other times, you’ll have to mail in the rebate coupon with a copy of your receipt. Rebates are issued directly from the manufacturer.
The best way to make sure you are getting the most value for your money is to look for the unit price. It is found on the shelf tag and will tell you how much an item costs by a unit of measurement. It is usually by the ounce, but can also be by the pound or per item, like with paper products.
The special display shelves that you’ll find at the end of the aisles are called end caps.
These displays are to drive purchases. Sometimes the items are on sale, but just because it is on display, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper.
Another term to look out for is limit.
Oftentimes, when something goes on sale, there will be a purchase limit. So, if you see a “limit 10” on a shelf tag or in a sales circular, that means you can purchase a maximum of 10 items at the sale price.
Limits are usually per shopping trip or per day, so feel free to go back the next day to purchase more!
— CTV News (@CTVNews) April 23, 2020
What are the common grocery store categories & aisles?
The majority of grocery stores will have many categories and aisles in common.
Smaller mom and pop stores may not have all of these categories, but generally big chains will have most of them.
Common grocery store departments and sections are:
- The Produce department
- The Meat department
- The Seafood department
- The Beer and Wine section
- The Health and Beauty department
- The Deli/Prepared Foods department
- The Front End
Grocery stores may also have a separate floral department, often connected to or adjacent to Produce.
They may also have other specialty departments, like a cafe or coffee bar.
Before we get into what is in each department, let’s talk about the middle aisles of the grocery store.
This is where you’ll find things like cereal, baking ingredients, canned goods, cleaning products, and paper products.
Aisles are organized so that similar products are grouped together. This makes shopping quick and efficient.
The cereal will be in the same aisle as other breakfast items, like cereal bars, oatmeal, and pancake mix. This is also where you’ll find coffee and coffee filters.
The beverage aisle will be where you’ll find soft drinks, juice drinks, water, and energy drinks. Large grocery stores may have more than one beverage aisle.
The bread aisle is where you’ll find hot dog buns, hamburger buns, sandwich rolls, and sandwich bread. It’s also where you’ll find things like peanut butter and jelly. you may also find paper plates.
If paper plates aren’t on your bread aisle, they’ll be on your paper products Isle this will have paper towels and napkins toilet paper. it may also contain cleaning supplies and laundry detergent.
The snack aisle will often be combined with the candy aisle. This is where you’ll find chips and popcorn, pretzels and of course candy.
The canned aisle is where you’ll find canned goods. It is usually comprised of more than one aisle and contains a variety of canned vegetables, fruits, and meats.
The pasta aisle is where you’ll find your dried pasta, pasta sauce, and boxed dinners like Hamburger Helper.
It is also where you’ll find rice. I’ve found that some grocery stores have canned tomatoes on the pasta aisle instead of the canned vegetable aisle. I suppose this makes sense, considering you’ll usually use canned tomatoes in semi-homemade pasta sauce.
Now, let’s look at each individual department.
The Produce department
The produce department is where you’ll find your fresh produce. If a store doesn’t have a separate floral department, it’s also where you’re likely to find fresh flowers.
The freshest and most seasonal produce (and also often the cheapest) is placed at the front while that is not so fresh (and pricier stuff) is put in the back.
It’s normally located just near the entrance of the store. Produce is typically located right at the entrance because of the freshness and bold colors. It’s designed to imply that the whole store is fresh and abundant.
The least expensive items are also positioned at the front of the department to imply that the whole store has great prices and is value-packed.
Ever wonder why produce departments spray water on some vegetables?
Is it really to keep them fresh or are they trying to make the items weigh more since so much of it is sold by the pound? Click here to read my complete breakdown of water spraying in produce departments. Fear not! I give you the inside scoop!
The Meat Department
The meat is where you’ll find beef, chicken, and pork. You may also find some specialty meats like oxtail.
Just like the rest of the store, the meat department is organized so shoppers can quickly find what they are looking for. This department may just be fresh and frozen packaged items.
But larger stores will have a meat counter where you can get specialty cuts or things cut to order.
If you are lucky enough to have a full-service butcher, get to know him or her. They can be a wealth of information. They can also be a good source of how and when to purchase your meat.
Wondering which grocery chains have the best steaks?
Not all steaks and meat are created equal. And there is a lot of variety on meat grading standards. Luckily, I take the mystery out of it for you in this recent article. In it, I talk about which grocery stores have the best steak.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
The Seafood Department
The seafood department is where you’ll find, you guessed it, seafood! Fish, scallops, shrimp – everything that lives under the sea can be found in this department.
It is usually found next to the Meat department on the back wall of the store. In smaller stores and chains it may even be part of the Meat department.
Sometimes you can even find live lobsters in a tank or freshly prepared sushi.
— Robin La Pere (@noordinaryco) September 15, 2016
The Beer & Wine Section
Not all grocery stores sell beer and wine, but the ones that do will also have a separate department for it.
There would typically be a lot of bottles and cases on dry shelves as well as a large aisle of refrigerated beer. There would also typically be a small selection of chilled white wine, rose, and champagne.
Of course in some states, there will also be liquor at the grocery store too!
Which states allow that and which ones don’t and are there restrictions on the hours and days you can buy it? The so-called “blue laws” can be confusing!
Luckily, I break it all down in a recent article where I give you a state by state guide on grocery stores and liquor sales and the history of blue laws.
Just click that link to read it on my site.
The Health & Beauty Department
The health and beauty department is where you’ll find shampoo, makeup, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and vitamins. Basic first aid items, as well as feminine hygiene items, are located in the health and beauty department as well.
This may also be where you’ll find over-the-counter pain relievers and allergy medicine. It is usually located right next to the pharmacy if there is one in that store.
Not all grocery stores have pharmacies but just about every grocery store sells basic health and beauty items.
Deli/Prepared Foods Department
The deli, just like the bakery or meat and seafood departments, will be located along the wall of the grocery store.
This is where you’ll find pre-packaged meats and cheeses. If you have a full-service deli, it’s also where somebody will slice meats and cheeses for you.
Grocery stores will often have fully cooked and hot meats and side dishes ready for purchase served cafeteria-style. Some grocery stores, like Publix and Whole Foods, will even make sandwiches by the order or have self-serve salad bars.
The Front End
The front end is probably the most important part of the grocery store and where all the magic happens.
This is where you will typically be able to find managers if you need help, a customer service desk, and of course, cashiers.
The customer service desk may be where things like rain checks and refunds are issued.
You may find an ATM nearby as well as coin machines. Sometimes there will even be a full-service bank. Western Union and other money wiring services are often located here as well.
This is also where cashiers get change for their registers.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that the front end is where the store bookkeeper works. The bookkeeper is not only responsible for keeping the books, but they also ensure that the cashier’s tills are stocked with correct amounts of money.
The customer service desk is like the heart of the grocery store. Employees, as well as customers, get what they need from the customer service desk.
If you are a brand new grocery store worker this is probably where you’ll start out. If this is your first job, and you’re nervous about working in a grocery store, read this recent article.
There I talk about all of the things that can make you successful in a grocery store environment. It can be very stressful, but it’s important to keep calm.
Cashiers don’t just checkout customers.
They also have to answer customer questions, and often are responsible for bagging groceries. Cashiers also need to be able to accurately count change back to customers. They are typically the person that customers complain to when the store is out of items or there is a price discrepancy.
They also have to keep their eyes and other senses open to prevent product loss.
— The Everygirl (@TheEverygirl_) February 25, 2020
Why is milk always in the back of the store?
Milk is a staple item that ends up in almost everyone’s shopping cart.
Even if you’re vegan, chances are you are at least buying cartons of almond or coconut milk which are also located in the same area.
And if you pay attention, you’ll see that this area is almost always at the complete back of the store, typically as far away from the front doors as possible.
Why is that??
Well, it’s not an accident. For decades, savvy grocery store owners, managers, and companies have known that all shoppers will seek this department out. If they placed this are near the front doors, some shoppers would undoubtedly come grab their milk, check out, and be on their way.
So they figured out that if shoppers have to walk all the way through the whole store, they are much more likely to pick up a few extra things along the way.
It’s that same savvy psychology that leads expert grocers to also place stacks of handbaskets throughout the store for those who didn’t grab a cart on the way in.
Many times I’ve gone in to just grab 1 or 2 things, gotten my hands full only to spy a nearby stack of handbaskets. Once I unload my arms into the basket, I’m them much more likely to keep picking up items along the way.
So psychology, marketing, and a keen focus on profits are why the milk is at the back of the store.
There are some things that every grocery store has. From canned goods to meat and produce. Most every grocery store has packaged lunch meat, but they don’t all have a full-service meat department with a butcher.
Depending on what state you live in, your grocery store may or may not sell alcohol.
Some large chain stores have interesting seafood departments. On the other hand, mom and pop stores probably won’t have a seafood department. In fact, if they sell seafood at all, it will likely be frozen.
But why are some chains only in certain states?
And even then, some stores are only in certain cities and not others even within the same state. Kroger is a good example in Texas where I live as we have them in Dallas, but not in Austin.
Looking for something specific and where it’s located in a store?
Check out these articles on specific products. Just click any of those links to read more on my website:
What is your favorite grocery store?
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