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Are rural shoppers more likely to seek out deals because they’re savvier shoppers than city-dwellers, or is it because they have less money to spend? Are there more dollar stores in rural areas because that’s where rural residents like to shop, or do they shop at dollar stores because they have fewer options than their urban counterparts?

Not since “Green Acres” have such praises been sung of urban versus rural living – and never quite like this, in the context of grocery shopping and saving money.

There are plenty of surveys that illustrate how we like to shop and save on groceries, often broken down by age or region or income level. But Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability examined some of the differences between urban and rural grocery shoppers in its latest “Consumer Food Insights” report.

Among all shoppers, grocery stores and superstores are by far the most frequently shopped and most commonly available where they live, with 82% of those responding to Purdue’s survey saying they have easy access to such stores to get their groceries. But rural residents are far more likely to shop for groceries at dollar or discount stores. Nearly two-thirds of rural shoppers frequent their local dollar or discount store, while less than half of urban residents do the same, even when they have those types of stores available to them.

Convenience may be part of the reason – in many small communities, dollar stores are easier to get to than full-scale grocery stores, and there are more of them around. But the paramount reason may be price.

“Price is the most important attribute among almost half of rural households, compared to about one third of urban households,” Purdue found. On average, urban households spend more per week on groceries than rural households – not just because their groceries are more expensive, but because they often have more money to spend.

“Food budgets may be smaller among rural households, as we see a larger share of these households falling into lower income categories,” the report noted. Rural residents may also face “more food insecurity compared to urban households, with an average food insecurity rate of 22% for rural households and 14% for urban households.”

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So getting good deals is important. Purdue didn’t ask about coupon use, but it did find that rural residents are more likely to engage in money-saving behaviors like buying store brands. Urban residents are more interested in loyalty program perks and rewards.

Those same urban shoppers rate selection as the most important attribute when choosing a grocery store, over price. And what a selection they have, according to what they told Purdue. “Urban consumers report choosing non-conventional foods, such as wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs, organic foods and plant-based proteins more frequently than rural consumers,” the report found. Whether that’s because urban shoppers can afford such luxuries, or because they have easier access to them, is less clear.

“It would be interesting to evaluate the availability of such foods from the perspective of rural consumers,” the report stated, to determine “if this difference in behavior is preference-based or driven by lack of availability.”

The report has broader implications than simply pointing out a curiosity, or showing how people who live somewhere different are different from you. Two academic reports published last year warned that rural shoppers relying on dollar and discount stores for their groceries is not just a curiosity, but a cause for alarm.

“Dollar stores have rapidly expanded their food offerings in recent years,” the authors of a Coresight Research study found. But “these foods tend to be higher in calories and lower in nutrients, raising public health concerns.” A separate study, published by the academic journal Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, warned that the growing prevalence of dollar stores is driving some traditional grocers out of business – particularly in rural communities, where “the exit probability of independent grocery retailers is almost three times larger” than in urban communities.

It’s noteworthy, then, that Purdue found “rural consumers report being less happy with their diets than urban consumers.” They may be saving money by shopping at dollar stores, and buying cheaper processed and packaged foods – but at what cost in the long run?

Rural residents might look at city folk and think, they’re just not like us. And vice versa. But with prices a lot higher than they used to be, no one dislikes saving money on their groceries. And that’s something everyone can agree on, no matter where they shop – or where they call home.

Image source: Random Retail

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