Serving ethnic shoppers can go beyond carrying brands they like. A number of economic factors persuaded Vons to close one of its locations in a working-class Latino neighborhood of Long Beach. Superior Grocers snapped up the outlet in 2003, before the strike, and transformed it into a mid-size store with bargain-priced produce and fast-moving register lines.
On a recent Monday afternoon, a mostly Latino crowd jammed the produce section, plucking up bags of mangoes the size of softballs for 99 cents each. Customers reached for fresh tortillas made in the store, freshly baked French rolls and loaves of Mexican sweet bread. Flat-panel TVs played Spanish-language news clips. On the overhead speakers, daily specials rang out in English and Spanish.
Four miles to the southeast, in the upscale Belmont Shore neighborhood, Vons operates one of its smaller specialty stores, known as the Market by Vons. Sparkling clean and quiet as a library, the store features a bounty of wine and a limited produce selection. Mangoes there cost $1 more than at Superior Grocers and were half the size.
"I love this Vons, but I don't shop here all the time," said Patty Barnett, 38, an artist who lives in downtown Long Beach. "I shop where there are sales."
Whether she'll see a picket line in the coming days in front of her favorite Vons outlet is unclear. On Sunday, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the grocers continued talks into the night despite the passing of a negotiations deadline. Union officials Thursday gave the employers 72 hours notice to cancel the labor contract's extension, a mandatory step before a walkout.
Labor negotiations have dragged on for more than eight months.
Some industry and labor experts warn that another lengthy strike, with at least 54,000 Southern California union members out of work, could have serious ripple effects on the region's fragile economy.
"That is more than the number of people being laid off from Bank of America," said Smith of Pepperdine University.
Analyst Flickinger said competitors would be well-prepared to take advantage of a strike, just as they were in 2003-04. Only this time, he said, the retailers probably would have social-media campaigns ready to go in order to woo customers away from the big three chains with email blitzes and online advertising.
"If there really is a strike," he said, "then every week will be like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's for the competition, in terms of sales volume."