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Dude, We're Not in the ol' A&P Anymore

Rolling Down the Aisles of the '90's Southern California Supermarket, California Roll Clasped Firmly in Hand.

April 21, 1996|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman is the author of "This Damn House! (My Subcontract with America)," published in March by Villard. Her last article for the magazine was on voice-overs

I'm here at the new Ralphs in West Hollywood. I'm standing in front of a self-service Mediterranean olive bar, where, for $5.99 a pound, customers can load up on pimento, stuffed martini, black Greek, sun-dried black Greek, Nafplion, picholine, Nicoises, almond, garlic-stuffed, black garlic-stuffed . . . . I've got nothing against olives, but why do I have this Dorothy-in-Oz feeling? * "Olives are a very big product," says the proud wizard at my elbow, Mark Miale, manager of Service Deli Merchandising for Ralphs, the state's largest supermarket chain. "We probably do a couple hundred pounds a week." * I watch dumbfounded as an older woman in thick white stockings shovels a couple dozen into a container. "I get these for my cat," she confides. "It's the only people food he likes. He won't eat steak, but he loves seasoned deli olives." And if her tabby craved kumquats, or yucca root, or porcini mushrooms or pistachio oil, the store would be equally accommodating. * Whoever said the '90s are the decade of limitations has obviously not set foot in a Southern California supermarket lately. Guaranteed low-price and double-coupon wars have expanded into a battle over who can provide the widest variety of extravagant foods and services. Uber grocers such as Bristol Farms, Gelson's Markets and Pavilions woo customers with champagne gift baskets, takeout baba ghanoush, valet parking, cappuccino bars and cooking classes taught by Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme--and now, even at the lowliest conventional markets, picnics to go, salad bars and sushi are commonplace.

Lucky caters parties. Vons is the largest retail seller of flowers in California. Hughes will count, sort and give you credit for your empty Sparkletts bottle filled with loose change. All the big chains are putting in banks. Customers at the new Calabasas Gelson's can recover from the stress of deciding between paper or plastic in not one, but two cozy lounge areas, complete with comfortable chairs and fireplaces. Pavilions delivers groceries that you can order online. Bristol Farms will cryo-freeze a month's worth of meals to feed you as you sail off to Bali on your yacht.

And as Southern California (the most competitive supermarket market) goes, so goes the nation. My sister reports from Texas that there's a pianist playing a baby grand in the produce department of her local Tom Thumb. (I imagine a medley of "Food, Glorious Food" and "Yes! We Have No Bananas.")

Grocers are reluctant to speak of the reasons behind the bells and whistles for fear of tipping off the competition. (In fact, in all my years of journalism, I've never run into such a tight-lipped bunch. Even the most innocuous facts in this article took at least three conversations to uncover, and I'm convinced it would be easier to crack the CIA's latest code than to learn how many cartons of Gelson's bottled water are sold in a given week.) Fortunately--as another example of the industry's more-is-more philosophy--supermarket studies have become an academic specialty. (I received 18 responses to my Internet query.)

"Supermarkets are being creative trying to capture new forms of business," explains James H. Stevenson, director of the Food Industry Management Program at USC. "Other forms of competition--convenience stores and the big club stores like Wal-Mart, Price Club, Petco--have cut into sales. And for the first time in history, the dollars spent for food outside the home are about the same as dollars spent for food in the home. People are eating out in restaurants more, and that business came out of the supermarkets' pockets. So now, markets are looking for new niches and putting in new services, like lobster tanks, Chinese kitchens and video rentals."

"Historically, supermarkets all competed to give the lowest possible price," says John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "They could keep this up as long as there was a little more profit they could give away. But now prices can't get any lower, and supermarkets are saying: 'Wait a minute, we have to do something else to make people like our markets. We have to make our markets fun.' "

Fun? Perhaps I'm not their target shopper. I consider grocery shopping to be an odious task, only one notch above getting my driver's license renewed at the DMV. I spend a ridiculous amount of money on items that will disappear in under a week. And no matter how much I dislike the task, it never goes away.

This, of course, is why supermarkets knock themselves out to promote customer loyalty. Supermarkets operate on a slim profit margin, traditionally only 1% of a sale, due to stiff competition and the high number of perishable goods. (Items lost to spoilage are known as the "shrink" and are figured into the price.) But that 1% adds up. A big supermarket, according to USC's Stevenson, can gross $1 million a week in sales.

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