November 30, 2010

What Your Grocer Won't Tell You (But You Need to Know)

Dear Savvy Shopper:

There was a time, back in the 1970s, when the Los Angeles metropolitan area had the lowest food prices in the country.  This was because we had over twenty chains competing for your business.  Offhand I think of ABC, Albertson’s, Alpha Beta, A & P, Boys, Dale’s, Fazio’s, Food Giant, Food King, Hughes, Jewel, Lucky, Market Basket, Mayfair, Pioneer, Ralphs, Safeway, Shopping Bag, Stater Brothers, Thriftimart, and Vons.  It was a buyer’s market; with so many players chasing a finite number of consumers, we had to keep our prices low, even in the face of rising union wages and energy costs. (Remember the Arab oil embargo, and the soaring price of fuel?)

But over time Lucky absorbed Dale's and Food King, then Albertson’s  took over Lucky and was itself acquired by Supervalu.  Vons combined with Safeway, Ralphs swallowed Alpha Beta, Hughes and Market Basket, and in turn was acquired by Kroger.  Jewel, Food Giant, and A & P just closed their stores, period.  Fazio’s merged with Shopping Bag, then disappeared.  They needed to economize, to bolster their buying power, shutter redundant operations, reduce costs wherever they could.  Some stores were retained and rebranded, but hundreds  closed.

Now just a handful of chains remain, joined in recent years by super-stores like Walmart and Target.  The pendulum has swung in our favor, and the landscape is now less competitive than ever.  We have to make a profit, or else there’s no point in being here at all.  You might see us as a corporate monolith, and maybe you’re right.  But at the end of the day the store employees are still a bunch of working stiffs, regular people with feelings, just like you.  So when you shop in our store, please keep a few things in mind:

This building is private property, and we can refuse service to anyone – for any reason, or for no reason.  You don’t have a “right” to shop here, any more than I have a “right” to spend the night in your home.

They gave out S & H stamps
If that sign on the door says we open at 7:00 am, that’s when you can come in.  If it says we close at 10:00 pm, that’s when you have to leave.  I can’t help it if you’re late for work, or have six hungry children to feed, or a crowd of unexpected house guests.  If you slip and fall outside those hours, our liability insurance might not cover you.  I’m not in the mood to lose my job today, over a personal injury lawsuit that could have been prevented.

If you see me stacking boxes of laundry detergent, don’t ask me about the apples.  If you see me tending the apples, don’t ask me about the ice cream.  I wouldn’t know where to start.
If you want to talk to me, then for crying out loud, talk to me!  Don’t shout across the room, or whisper behind my back.  I won’t answer to a grunt, a whistle, or a snap of your fingers.  I’m not a cocker spaniel.  And please, talk to me in English!

The Pioneer store in Echo Park survived until 2004
When I see a customer’s cart overflowing with steaks, shrimp, and all manner of gourmet food, I always think the same thing: This guy’s paying with food stamps.  And I’m almost always right.  It offends me when I see that my neighbors on public assistance, who feed their families with my tax money, are often the most irresponsible in their spending. 

If you don’t see your favorite mayonnaise or breakfast cereal on the shelf – and you ask me “do you have any in back?” – and I roll my eyes in exasperation – please understand: we spent millions to build, stock, and staff this store; why would I now hide it from you?  I don’t mind if you ask, but please don’t get an attitude when I say no (and I almost always will).  Like most stores we order everything in small lots, and we don’t have a warehouse for overstocks.  We’re in business to make money; rest assured that everything we do, is aimed at squeezing every possible nickel from you before you leave.

If you’re frustrated that the checkout line moves too slowly, don’t be so quick to blame me.  Far more often than not, the problem lies with an uncooperative customer.  One demands to redeem a Cheerios coupon for a box of Post Toasties, another ran off to get a quart of milk. And these are the very people who complain the most.

Around here, the checkstand is the place you go when you’re done shopping; so when you ask me, “send someone to get me a jar of peanut butter,” I don’t know what you mean.  Should I call the butcher who’s elbow-deep in chuck roasts, or the service deli clerk who’s already overwhelmed with scooping coleslaw and slicing provolone?  Like all but the most exclusive (and expensive!) stores, we don’t have personal shoppers. Our business model is based on self-service; we haven’t even employed boxboys for decades now.

Use both hands to unload your basket.  Grab one of those handy-dandy plastic sticks to separate your order from the others, or I will run them together.  Then when I start ringing up your order, hang up the phone.  Stop fiddling with your iPod, or reading that gossip magazine, and pay attention!  There’s a long line of customers waiting behind you. 

Don’t talk to me when I’m counting money, or if I’m already serving another customer; I will never respond.  I don’t care if you think it’s rude.

When you rush past me with that undeclared 50-pound bag of Dog Chow under your basket, and I catch you in the act, don’t insult my intelligence with a sheepish grin and “Oops! I forgot!”  The bottom of the cart is a transparent metal grid, and that brightly colored bag is too big to miss.

Why do you seem surprised when I announce your total, as if you didn’t expect to pay for your purchases?  Don’t make me wait while you reach for your purse and pull out your checkbook.

The credit card reader isn’t complicated.  It displays a diagram to show you exactly how to slide the card, and the screen gives explicit instructions for what to do at each step.  (No tu puedes leer ingles?  Exactamundo.)  And if it rejects your card, I can’t help it.  No one in the store has any authority to overrule your bank’s decision. 

Merged with Shopping Bag
If you’re writing a check, don’t make me wait for your ID; I will ask every time.  Don’t tell me “I’ve shopped here 20 years, and Betty Jo knows me.”  The store is only five years old, and we don’t have a Betty Jo.  And even with three picture IDs, I can still turn you away if you give me an attitude or I get a bad vibe about it.  My house, my rules, and I don’t want your business that badly.

I don’t want to be impolite or demanding, but I have a business to run and bills to pay.  Just put yourself in my place for a moment.  If you had a store, you would do exactly the same.

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