When Bob Schneider goes out on a Friday night, he no longer heads to the local singles bar. Instead, he goes to the grocery store.

“I once dated a woman from the potato section at Mariano’s,” says Mr. Schneider, a 67-year-old semiretired, twice-divorced lobbyist in Oak Brook, Ill. “The next thing you know we’re at the wine bar and then we’re dating.”

Supermarkets—those havens of the not-so-scintillating chore of scouring numbered aisles, pushing carts and perusing produce—are finding a new identity as a social hub in communities. Parents now bring their children here to play, retirees gather for Bingo, and singles find romance.

Grocery stores are fulfilling the new role as traditional gathering spots, from shopping malls to social clubs like Lions Clubs and Rotary International, continue to shrink from decades-earlier peaks. Malls, in particular, are in danger of extinction. Credit Suisse has projected that up to 25% of malls will close over the next five years, as the internet continues to reshape the way Americans shop.

As more shoppers consider alternatives including online shopping apps and meal kits, grocers are finding ways to avoid a similar fate. Many are reinventing themselves as destination spots.

“Getting people into the store is the number one objective,” says Laurie Rains, Nielsen’s group vice president of retail strategy. Retailers are also drawn to the higher margins that in-house prepared foods, coffee and cocktails can offer.

By offering space for people to hang out and play, grocery stores are making a calculation that customers will stay, shop longer and come back more often.

Market of Choice, an Oregon chain of 11 supermarkets, has reduced space for center-store aisles by 22% in recent years and devoted more room to couches, fireplaces with seating areas and restaurant-like services, says owner Rick Wright. Whole Foods says social space is the first thing to get worked into floor plans. “Those interaction spots are drawn in first as protected bubbles before the aisles,” says Kayce McCormick, a regional executive coordinator who oversees store design.

Lowes Foods, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based supermarket chain, has recently redesigned its stores into an animated “village concept” of shops around the perimeter with giant birthday-candle lights, moving signs and employees who perform a chicken dance, says Heather George, senior vice president of brand strategy for the chain of 75 stores in the Carolinas. At the heart of each store is a large rectangular communal table that can seat 10 to 15 people.

That table has provided a weekly home for the Catawba Crafters, which gathers every Friday morning at a Hickory, N.C., store.

Founder Jo Boone, a 57-year-old retired nursing assistant, says the group has been surprised at how many shoppers stop and chat. “We had a lady come who was 91 and struggling with dementia. Her daughter asked, ‘Can mom sit with you while I shop?’ And I said sure,” Ms. Boone says. “The next Friday, we made her a shawl.”

Ms. Boone also attends Bingo games at the table on Tuesday mornings. She says the store has provided her with an important social outlet and a reason for getting out of the house. “Sometimes I sit there and I don’t even crochet because I start talking,” she says.

Some retail experts are skeptical that the capital devoted to entertaining shoppers can reap sufficient rewards. “There is little money to be made directly from people using a store as a place to hang out,” says Deborah Weinswig, chief executive of Coresight Research, a retail think tank, who says the benefit may be in a “halo effect,” where shoppers develop a warm perception of a brand.

The social aspect has converted people like Frank Linik from a twice-a-week grocery shopper to a daily one. On most mornings, the 72-year-old retired school administrator in Bend, Ore., brings his laptop to the 3,000-square-foot seating area surrounded by windows on the mezzanine overlooking his local Market of Choice, where he works on his novel. He typically orders coffee and a muffin and writes for two hours. “I started meeting people from other parts of town,” he says. Employees now know him by name and ask how his wife is doing. In the afternoon, when he starts thinking about what to make for dinner, he typically goes back to shop. “It’s top-of-mind,” he says.

Bo Sharon, owner of Boulder, Colo.-based Lucky’s Markets, says about 25% of his stores are devoted to nonretail space, whether that’s tables in a cafe, performance areas for local musicians, or a designated community room where neighborhood groups meet.

Fostering a sense of community, he says, ultimately helps drive traffic. “Sure, we could put more aisles in and could pack more product, but then you lose the social hub of community,” he says.

At Mariano’s grocery store in Westchester, Ill., Mr. Schneider says open seating lowers the barrier to grabbing a seat near a stranger and starting conversation. “Once I had them cook an entire fish,” he recalls. “I took it over to a table where a woman was having a drink, and I offered her some. We didn’t end up dating, but I ended up with a really nice friend.”

The people he meets there are different from the nearby single’s bar. “People aren’t going there in desperation,” he says. “They are trying to get something to eat, be open—and it’s fun. And the cheese section, my God! The samples they throw at you.”

The social scene can be annoying for customers who just want to run in and get what they need. Jenny Perin says navigating the evening wine-tasting crowds that cluster in the aisles of her favorite grocery store, Walt Churchill’s Market in Maumee, Ohio, has made her rethink when she does her shopping. “I get irritated,” says the Waterville, Ohio, nonprofit consultant.

Owner Walt Churchill says the tastings are intended to be in back of the store, but that people sometimes wander. “It’s like herding cats sometimes,” he says. Mr. Churchill plans on confining the tasting area more in the future.

Simply roaming the aisles can inspire friendships, and even love.

Dan Wilson and Alissa Clapper met—and had their first date—over burgers at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Ankeny, Iowa, last summer. Having an in-house restaurant made the date possible, says Mr. Wilson. “It was 90% of the reason she even said yes,” he says, “because she didn’t have to get in the car with a stranger.” The couple recently got engaged.

During their nine-month courtship, Jeremy and Jessica Ellis regularly met at a Harris Teeter in Norfolk, Va. The grocery store was the midway point in the 45 miles between their two towns.

“Most of our dating life was at the grocery store,” says Ms. Ellis. “You get a chance to talk, there’s another task to focus on and you’re not worried about impressing the other person.”

The couple would chat, have coffee and smell flowers. “Whenever a song came on, we would dance in the middle of the aisle,” says Mr. Ellis, “and not care what people thought.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal