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Finicky and Frugal Shoppers Put Squeeze on Supermarkets

For more than half a century, supermarkets have offered everything from canned beans to beefsteak to baking soda under one very large roof. But ill winds are blowing for this lion of American commerce.

In the Washington, D.C., area, for instance, the 70-year-old Giant Food chain is eliminating 500 jobs. No longer locally owned, Giant is now part of a Dutch corporation that is streamlining operations to save money.

Columnist Marc Fisher writes in the Washington Post that Giant is a victim of its own broad appeal. It's paring jobs and losing market share because it clings to the idea that one store can serve the needs of everyone. "Supermarkets," writes Mr. Fisher, "have failed to see the middle drop out of the American dream."

Shoppers are drifting away from full-service grocery chains to discount super stores like Costco and Wal-Mart that trumpet cheaper prices. At the same time even people of modest means are pampering themselves at emporiums like Whole Foods that sell exotic cheeses, fancy cuts of meat, and organically raised produce. The same shopper who stops into Whole Foods for wild -- and expensive -- Alaskan salmon will drive across the mall to Costco to pick up a hundred rolls of paper towels at a discount price.

Stores in the middle -- the classic, all-purpose supermarkets -- now face myriad competitors, nibbling at their customer base and profits. Shoppers still stop at Giant for peanut butter, milk and pickles. But maybe not as often as they did when a family's American dream most certainly included filling one or more carts at the same supermarket each week.