Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grocery Store Mythology

Here’s a startling tale to tell: When we do serious grocery shopping, we drive 60 miles round trip to do it. In a sport utility vehicle, no less.

We have grocery stores that are closer to home. Heck, we have one a block and a half from home. We go there for incidentals: hot dog buns, bananas. Occasionally, they put their boxed cereal on sale at a good price. The kids love their penny-candy counter.

But for serious shopping, it’s into the SUV and strap in, we’re going for a ride.

There’s an Albertson’s closer. Their prices aren’t, as Robb Hicken describes in a blog post at the Idaho Business Review, “adequate.” They’re outrageous. Just on mozzarella cheese alone – two blocks every two weeks – we save enough money driving sixty miles to buy it to justify the gas to get us there. There is Winco of Idaho Falls, part of the Boise-based discount chain. And Winco saves us money on practically everything else we buy. I know. I check. I run the numbers. About once a year, I take our latest Winco receipt to the local Albertson’s, the local Broulim’s, and compare prices. Every time, Winco has them beat. They even beat Walmart. Even after I factor in the gasoline.

Yes, I know you shudder, and not just because you’re concerned about the massive size of my carbon footprint.

We don’t. Because whether we drive the extra distance to Idaho Falls to shop or stay local and spend more, somebody still has to drive that food to our local stores, waving at Idaho Falls as it passes. And mark it up. Enormously. Still, you say, we’re tipping the carbon scale. If only you could convince me to look at this situation through the lens of a carbon economy.

Hicken, however, relies on nostalgia, not environmental friendliness, to keep him going to Albertson’s. He likes that whenever he goes into his local store, he knows the people who work there. That’s great. But we’re on as friendly terms with a few folks at Winco and (gasp) Walmart to say the Albertsons Effect here is mitigated. You get out of an experience what you put into it. One of the clerks at Winco was a Waremart clerk I remember chatting with as a kid. You can make friends with a big-box greeter just as easily as the neighborhood grocery store butcher, you know.

I, too, have fond memories of grocery stores past, but I’m afraid they have little to do with store brand loyalty, or loyalty to a store for that matter.

Albertson’s: As I sat in the car with my older sister and younger brother, at the Albertsons in the Yellowstone Mall (the entire mall now is shuttered) another car pulled into the parking spot facing us. Sister said “Wouldn’t it be funny if that car hit us?” It did.

Smith’s: The old Smith’s Food King had an ice cream parlor inside. Rainbow sherbet ice cream every time. Once, younger brother dropped his ice cream in the parking lot. Dad replaced it. Then we sat in the car in the parking lot hoping somebody would step in the melted ice cream. A little boy ran straight towards it – we cheered. Then he leaped over it. We cheered even louder.

Waremart: Winco’s predecessor. They had a drinking fountain in the far corner. I still look for it in Winco’s new store. They also had boxes at the front you put your stuff in, rather than bags. And grease pens so you could write the price from the shelf on the stuff you bought. And real generic brands – black and white packaging.

So there’s a lot of mythology involved. Though I have fond memories of Albertson’s and Smith’s from childhood, their prices today keep me out. I enjoy my Winco and Walmart experiences as much as I enjoy shopping occasionally at the corner grocery store. I’m putting in exactly what I hope to get out: Convenience with some, savings with another.

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