Shopping List: Bread. Milk. House?

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Buying a house has gotten a lot cheaper in recent months, but cheap enough to buy at the local supermarket?

The folks at RE/MAX of New England apparently think so. The real estate brokerage franchiser just rolled out a five-year deal with Stop & Shop, one of the region's largest supermarket chains, to open mini offices in up to 17 grocery stores in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut this year.

Well, maybe it's not as much about price as it is about access. RE/MAX is hoping that the high level of foot traffic in supermarkets will give more visibility to brokers set up at the front of the store. There's an incentive for brokers, as well. "The true upside of these RE/MAX franchises is that a broker will have a smaller and more economical office," said RE/MAX of New England executive Jay Hummer in a company statement. Higher visibility plus lower costs might equal more sales and profits.

The lingering question is whether this new approach will strike home buyers as a fresh opportunity to shop, or as a sign that the local real estate listings are getting stale.

Sears set up in-store offices for Coldwell Banker, which it once owned, in the early 1980s. The department store chain closed most of those brokerages by the end of the decade and sold Coldwell Banker in the early 1990s. The big problem? Not enough foot traffic. RE/MAX thinks supermarkets are different than department stores, since they serve as gathering spots in communities and people visit them more than once a week.

The small offices, somewhere between 200 and 400 square feet, will include computer terminals where shoppers can browse listing. They'll also be open for at least 50 hours a week, per the agreement. But it's tough to say whether home buyers will want browse real estate listings right after spending their hard-earned dough on a cartload of comestibles. After all, it's not like RE/MAX is accepting coupons.
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