How Big Bear markets make a tiny profit

Supermarket homage

65 percent of his operating expenses are related to labor.
  • 65 percent of his operating expenses are related to labor.
  • Image by Joe Klein

Consider what Steve Ashcraft was doing within moments of arriving at the Big Bear supermarket in the Golden Triangle, across Genesee Avenue from the University Townc Centre. It was just past 7:00 on a Tuesday morning, and Ashcraft, the store manager, was analyzing the store’s sales for the previous day — “fair,” he pronounced them. His attention shifted to what it took to earn those sales. This store employs a total of about 85 people, and Ashcraft was adding up how many hours each of them had worked, then multiplying the total by $12.30, the store’s average hourly labor cost. More tapping on his calculator keys. The manager lifted his head with a look of satisfaction. Compared to the Monday one week before, his labor costs were down one half percent.

The manager directed the fish worker to try to get more from the Big Bear in Del Mar.

The manager directed the fish worker to try to get more from the Big Bear in Del Mar.

Ashcraft cares about this because 65 percent of his operating expenses are related to labor. He thus has a weekly budget for what he can “spend" (in terms of worker hours) to run the place. He watches it almost hourly and makes adjustments, sending people home early, for example, when sales turn slow. It’s a delicate balancing act. If any department is undermanned, it won’t run as well, but on the other hand, Ashcraft says, you can never count on making up at some point in the future for being overstaffed today. And the last thing he wants to do is to get himself in a position where he’s forced to have people work overtime — a fearsome budget buster.

Customers are channeled in order to lead them eventually into either the meat or produce department.

Customers are channeled in order to lead them eventually into either the meat or produce department.

He pulled his sales journal off a nearby shelf, looking up the figures for the store’s performance 366 days ago. “We’re competing against last year,” he explained. The comparison now revealed one worrisome change: 83 fewer customers walked in on September 28, 1992, than had done so on that date in 1991. Moreover, this appeared to fit a pattern. Ashcraft told me that his traffic had been holding steady or even building throughout 1992, but about the time UCSD reopened in September, the store’s customer counts began comparing unfavorably with the previous year’s numbers.

99 percent of supermarket shoppers place great importance on the quality of a store’s produce.

99 percent of supermarket shoppers place great importance on the quality of a store’s produce.

This made Ashcraft wonder if he didn’t perhaps need to start advertising on the campus. “Maybe I need to offer a free baguette or 50 cents off one of our premium beers.” Once he drew new student customers in, he would retain them, he vowed.

Radishes

Radishes

Another revelation from the sales journal cheered him: his customers the previous day had spent an average of 34 cents more per order than they did the previous year — some S13.94 per “ring” versus $13.60. Ashcraft acknowledges that both of those figures are low for the industry; some stores bag orders averaging up to $22. Big Bear’s own store on Via de la Valle in Del Mar gets about $6.00 more per customer than Ashcraft’s store does. “We can have the same number of customers...and they’ll do more sales, because people there buy more stuff.”

Scallions and celery. Edible greenery fills one wall.

Scallions and celery. Edible greenery fills one wall.

Ashcraft has some plausible theories to explain this. The UCSD students who frequent his store “don’t have a lot of holding power in their refrigerators” and “pretty much have a daily shopping habit.” Ashcraft’s customers also include many professionals, some working in offices near the Costa Verde Shopping Center (in which Ashcraft’s store is located), and many others residing in Golden Triangle condos that lack a lot of room for food storage. “A lot of them are single.”

Many products are treated the same in every Big Bear. “Canned milk would be a standard eight feet.”

Many products are treated the same in every Big Bear. “Canned milk would be a standard eight feet.”

So any increase in his average sale encourages the store manager. A 34-cent rise “is really a significant number when you consider the amount of customers who come through the store.” Ashcraft didn’t want to reveal how many that is; he seemed edgy at the thought of his competitors knowing. But I gathered that somewhere between 2500 and 5000 individuals stream through the sliding doors every day here.

Adding and deleting various items helps give the store a fresh look.

Adding and deleting various items helps give the store a fresh look.

That doesn’t make it the busiest or most important supermarket in San Diego. Vons, which bought Safeway’s Southern California outlets four years ago, has by far the biggest presence here, with 62 stores throughout the county. Lucky (owned by American Stores, the second largest su-permarket/drugstore retailer in the country) occupies second place here with 47 local facilities, followed by Ralphs with 25. In comparison, there are only 16 Big Bears left in the county (plus the chain also owns the Jonathan’s Markets in La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe and six stores in Imperial County). In terms of its share of the market, Big Bear looks even more insignificant, with substantially less than ten percent of retail food sales county-wide.

A solid wall of frozen foods

A solid wall of frozen foods

What Big Bear lacks in size, it makes up for in local history. The company’s origins date back to 1944, when a transplanted Iowa farm boy named John Mabee opened a mom-and-pop grocery store at the corner of South 43rd and Keeler streets, a few blocks from the northern boundary of National City

 “You want to push your private label because you make a lot of money on it.”

“You want to push your private label because you make a lot of money on it.”

Today Larry Mabee, John’s son and the current president of the company, says, “I never could understand how in the world they [his parents] managed to save any money, but my mother would chuckle and say, ‘There wasn’t anything to spend it on during the war.’ ” Unable to serve in the military, John worked a night shift at the local shipyards. “But Dad has always had an incredible entrepreneurial gift,” recalls Larry. “He was used to long hours on the farm, and he needed something to do in the day.” So he and his wife bought the little market and moved in above it.

They ran it for about three years, then purchased a piece of property two blocks down the street, where they built a second store. It opened on February 25, 1947, christened Johnny’s Super Market.

The name was hyperbolic, Larry Mabee indicates. He says his parents’ first stores measured just 900 and 3500 square feet and were initially stocked with fewer than a thousand items. “You have to understand that back in the ’40s in San Diego, there were several hundred small independent grocers,” he says. “People didn’t have gasoline, and they didn’t have cars, and if they had a car they probably didn’t have tires on it during the war. Refrigeration was a real luxury item. People shopped every day, sometimes twice a day; and they shopped in a neighborhood where they could walk from their front door to the store and walk home.”

As oddly old fashioned as those tiny markets may sound today, they were modern when compared to the provisioners of 19th-century Americans. Frontier trading posts had evolved into small credit-and-delivery businesses. A customer would walk into one, give his or her order to a clerk. Later the grocer would have the items delivered to the customer’s home, billing periodically for the purchases. Stores of this type began to be linked together into chains after the turn of the century, but it wasn’t until 1912 that the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company introduced cash and carry in its A&P stores. The clerks remained in these stores, but customers paid on the spot and took their purchases home with them.

Another innovation came along in 1917, when a visionary Virginian named Clarence Saunders opened the first self-service food emporium in Memphis, Tennessee. Piggly Wiggly, as Saunders named his novel venture, featured a serpentine pathway lined with goods to which customers could help themselves; they paid at a check-out stand near the exit. Freed of much of the traditional grocer’s overhead, Saunders cut prices and prospered; within a few years he had opened nearly 3000 Piggly Wigglys.

This then was the prevailing model in the retail food industry when the Mabees entered the business in the early 1940s. But an even more radical change had appeared a decade earlier in the form of the first true supermarkets. One of the earliest and most articulate promoters of them was a veteran A&P clerk named Michael Cullen. As early as 1929, he had written to the head of the Kroger’s grocery chain (from whom he hoped to get financial backing) and argued that a savvy grocer could charge less per item and still make plenty of money if he could manage to sell enough of each item. To that end, Cullen proposed opening five outlets “monstrous in size” located on low-rent properties off the main thoroughfares. As he wrote to the head of Kroger’s, inside these establishments,

  • I want to sell 300 items at cost. 1 want to sell 200 items at 5% above cost. 1 want to sell 300 items at 15% above cost. I want to sell 300 items at 20% above cost. [He could afford to sell a can of milk at cost] if I could sell a can of peas and make 2 cents, and so on all through the grocery line.... The public would break my front doors down to get in. It would be a riot.... I would lead the public out of the high-priced houses of bondage into the low prices of the house of the promised land.

The Kroger’s chain didn’t go for the idea (not then anyway), but Cullen’s predictions proved only slightly exaggerated when, aided by someone else, he opened the first King Kullen Grocery Company on Jamaica Avenue in the borough of Queens, New York City.

It was August of 1930. Huge newspaper ads helped the “World’s Greatest Price Wrecker” draw such throngs that a second, third, and subsequent stores soon followed. So did the competition.

Within five years, 94 supermarkets had appeared in 24 cities. By September of 1941, Time magazine counted 10,100 such stores, but they still constituted only about three percent of all food stores in America. Then World War II broke out, and new store construction ceased, not to pick up again until the end of the decade.

Ironically, it was around 1948 or 1949 that Johnny Mabee decided to quit the grocery business and retire to running a used-car lot at College Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. Today his son laughs at this memory; he says his father “has too much energy and too much brain power to sit idle,” and indeed before long he went to work for the first local Food Basket, which opened across the street from his erstwhile car lot. From there he went on to manage the second Food Basket, in Pacific Beach, before deciding that it was silly to continue working for other people. He re-acquired his second Johnny’s Market, which he had leased out, and began to expand it under a new name, Big Bear.

Larry Mabee says the name had no connection to the Big Bear supermarket chain founded in New Jersey in the early 1930s. He says his father had begun to envision building a chain of stores and decided that Johnny’s Market wasn’t sufficiently distinctive. So he picked out the name Big Bear in the most casual fashion, while driving to work one morning.

Under the new appellation, the Mabees’ business grew steadily. The ’50s turned out to be the Decade of the Supermarket; at one point three new stores were opening daily nationwide. By 1960, the supers’ overall share of retail food sales had grown to about 70 percent. From King Kullen’s original 6000-square-foot prototype, supermarkets of the 1950s had ballooned into the 20,000-square-foot range.

Today any 20,000-square-foot supermarket feels cramped and antiquated. The median size of new stores built in 1991 was 42,000 square feet, according to the Food Marketing Institute, and many stores go much larger; Lucky’s Advantage store on Balboa Avenue in Kearny Mesa is 55,000 square feet. “But bigger is not always better in my mind,” affirms Larry Mabee. “This may be old-fashioned thinking in my industry. But I shop myself; I’m not married and I enjoy grocery shopping. And when I’m out of town somewhere and I get in one of these huge stores — okay, they’ve got all this stuff, but I don’t need it all. In this town, I know where I can buy a radio or a TV for a pretty good price, and I’m not going to buy it in a grocery store.” The gigantic stores also cost customers more time, Mabee contends. “If you’ve got the kids along and you’re in that store for an extra half-hour, 45 minutes, having to go through all the stuff to find what you need — it becomes an ordeal.” Mabee says that’s why his biggest store, on Via de la Valle, at 48,000 feet is “as big as I would like to go.” The Golden Triangle store, Big Bear’s newest, is just 40,000 square feet.

This store is unique,” Al Bercuson told me one morning as we stood inside the doorway of the Golden Triangle store. “It’s state of the art.” Today Bercuson, a trim, dark-haired man who has worked for Big Bear for 19 years, is merchandising manager for the chain; more than anyone else, he’s the person responsible for planning what goes where within each store. Before this job, however, he was Steve Ashcraft’s predecessor as manager of the Golden Triangle store, and he was involved early in planning what it would look like.

I had told all three of the larger chains in town that I wanted to visit their most attractive local outlet. The public relations coordinator for Ralphs directed me to the two-year-old store in the Uptown Shopping Center in Hillcrest. I got similar recommendations for the Lucky Store on Oceanside Boulevard in Oceanside and the Vons in Carmel Valley’s new Piazza Carmel. All turned out to be beehives of comestible commerce. But none surpasses the Golden Triangle Big Bear aesthetically. Its interior seems designed to gleam from as many surfaces as possible. Inside the entrance, customers pass under an archway lined with brass (a material that has been used liberally throughout the store) and maroon velvet bunting. The white floor tile glistens. All the overhead illumination comes not from the standard glare of long fluorescent tubes, but from suspended disks that bounce a cool white light up and off the ceiling.

The store layout also defies the traditional supermarket pattern: a gauntlet of check-out stands around which customers are channeled in order to lead them eventually into either the meat or produce department. The floor plan at the Golden Triangle store, in contrast, deposits one immediately into an aromatic bazaar. Check-out stands angle somewhere off to the left, almost imperceptible beyond an area devoted to gourmet coffees that smell of chocolate and amaretto and Irish cream. The scene straight ahead is cornucopian. One recent day I counted mountains of more than a dozen types of apples: brawny red Washingtons, chartreuse Fijis, galas, “Jonagolds,” pippins, Rome beauties, Mclntoshes, red delicious, two sizes of golden delicious and Granny Smiths. Edible greenery fills one wall, intercut with radicchio and baby cauliflower and fava beans and fresh woodear mushrooms and pickling cucumbers and chayote and sugar cane. The opposing wall is given over to the long expanse of a “Deli Shoppe” that terminates at the outpost of a Chinese chef who from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily stir-fries chicken with black beans and kung pao shrimp and sweet-and-sour pork. A sushi chef toils on a separate stage. Nearby, four different kinds of soup simmer in cauldrons, while bakery workers along the far wall arrange chocolate eclairs and rugalach and strudel sticks and cheesecakes and cookies dusted with sugar.

All this contributes to an impression of overwhelming freshness and succulence, an impression contrived by contemporary supermarkets for several reasons. Industry surveys show that up to 99 percent of supermarket shoppers place great importance on the quality of a store’s produce, and Bercuson says Big Bear felt this would be particularly true in a “health-conscious” area like the Golden Triangle. Bercuson says there’s also been an industry-wide trend to integrate the produce, service deli, bakery, and other specialty departments, weaving smells and colors together in such a way as to make unplanned purchases almost irresistible. “A person usually doesn’t come in with two or three pounds of corned beef on his shopping list," Bercuson confides. But when the shopper does decide impulsively to make such a purchase, the grocery store earns a handsome gross profit on the transaction. (Bercuson says it wouldn’t be uncommon for the store to have paid $2.50 for pre-sliced turkey breast, which it then sells for $5.00 — a 50 percent profit.)

Of course, that’s the gross profit. Out of that money must be paid all the operational expenses — employee salaries, insurance, rent and utilities, advertising, and on and on. In the supermarket industry, what you wind up with, on average, after all those expenses have been subtracted is an astonishingly low net profit — just three-quarters of a one percent in the year ended March 31, 1992, according to the Food Marketing Institute. To put that figure in perspective, the general-merchandise retailers in this country earn net profits of up to as much as five percent (and that sector of the American economy is up to twice as productive as its Japanese counterparts, according to one recent international study). When you look at food companies such as Kellogg’s, you find that “they historically make eight, nine, ten percent net, yearly,” says Larry Mabee.

The supermarkets accept their meager net profits because they have to, driven by the same competitive pressures that Michael Cullen and his brethren introduced 60 years ago. For every item in today’s supermarket selling for a 30 to 50 percent gross markup, there remain others priced at or near what their producers sell them for. Stores do best when they can get people to buy more of the former. So that’s another reason the Golden Triangle Big Bear is arranged the way it is. “We’re taking people first through the departments which make us a ton of money,” Bercuson commented as we made our way past the kumquats and the California rolls and the cheddar vegetable soup. “This is all 45 to 50 percent (gross margins].”

Once past these temptations, most customers eventually make their way to the dairy section, which in the Golden Triangle Big Bear lines the very rear wall of the building. This is where supermarkets always place their dairy products. “Almost everyone buys milk” — or eggs, or butter, or yogurt, says Bercuson. As a result, almost everyone must stroll past at least some of the other enticements strategically placed throughout the store.

A friendly man in his late 30s, Bercuson is openly enthusiastic about the task of getting people to buy ever more groceries. Part of that job is deciding how to display each item — which in the case of the Golden Triangle Big Bear exceeds some 30,000 different types of things. (Mabee says 38,000 are listed in Big Bear’s computer, and while every store doesn’t carry each one, the Golden Triangle store would have one of the largest selections.) “We kind of try to group things together,” Bercuson explained. “Take the soda pop aisle. Across from soda pop will be the chips. You want the customer to be shopping on both sides of the aisle.” Bread, butter, and jelly invariably are grouped together. Coffee usually goes near cereal.

Within given product sections, there are endless refinements upon this theme of one purchase triggering another. Bercuson pointed out a display of coffee mugs set next to the seven-ounce cans of Taster’s Choice. “See here we’ve cut a very profitable section (the mugs] into a low-profit area [the coffee].” Below the mugs were high-profit coffee filters. “So now she’s got three items in her basket,” Bercuson said of the shopper in his mind’s eye. “That’s impulse buying.” When I mentioned that I had heard one expert declare that seven out of ten items purchased in the supermarket are unplanned, the marketing manager beamed.

He stepped back, surveying the 20-foot section of coffees — caffeinated and decaf, flavored, acid-neutralized, and mixed with chicory — and told me that soon this section would be compressed to 16 feet. High prices and a sluggish economy had slowed the market for coffee to the point that “we do not need four, five, six facings on all the items.” (In grocery parlance, a “facing” is any item on the shelf that faces the aisle, as opposed to being hidden behind other items.) “We’re tying up a lot of money here. At $3.19 a can, you’re tying up $100,” he said, gesturing to one cluster of cans. “The grocery business is all a matter of turns. I need to sell the product...to bring it in and get it through that checkstand so that I can get our money back.”

This question of how much shelf space a certain product gets is called the “set” for that product, something that Big Bear executives say can vary considerably from one of their stores to another. Bercuson led me to the 12-foot-long tea section at the Golden Triangle store. “Look at these three [lowest] shelves,” he instructed. They held big boxes of Lipton’s and Tetley’s. “This is what everyone in town has: Vons, Ralphs, Lucky. But you come up to here” — he gestured to the next shelves up, now at arm’s level — “and you want an herb tea? You’ve got 7, 9, 12 different herbs.” Hibiscus and fruit du rosier tisane from Bigelow Herbal Gardens. Stash’s licorice spice. Celestial Seasonings’ wild forest blackberry. “You want a gourmet tea?” Bercuson continued. “You’ve got all these from Twinings.... Now at our San Ysidro store [where teas claim only 8 feet of shelf space] I can’t merchandise all this. People are interested in the (inexpensive] private-label tea. But they don’t understand [the fancy teas] because they haven’t been brought up on it.”

Big Bear executives claim that their willingness to tailor their operations to individual neighborhoods is something that for many years has distinguished them. “I think the competition is starting to do that now,” states Larry Mabee, “though they haven’t always.” He cites the example of an Alpha Beta that opened in the plaza that now houses the Factory Outlet Center in San Ysidro. “It was beautiful! I mean, it was gorgeous. The only trouble was that what they had in there wasn’t what the customers had in their diet. In fact, I think they were almost intimidated by the presentation. And the store totally failed.

Now, we have a store across the freeway from them, and it’s been very good for us, but we try to provide the goods and services that the people demand. Of course you want a clean, well-lighted store, but you’ve got to have the right things on the shelf at the right price.”

Standard sets for some items don’t work, Mabee contends. “The classic example is diapers. In most areas of town, maybe you can do diapers in 20 or 24 feet. In a Hispanic store, you’ve got to do it in 48 to 60 feet. They have lots and lots of kids.... Or take bleach. In a typical store, 10 to 12 feet is more than adequate, but in a Hispanic store, you’ve got to have a 24- to 30-foot bleach section.” If you don’t, the shelves quickly become bare and must be restocked — anathema in the supermarket business.

“If I have to handle a case of goods an extra time or two, it doesn’t pay,” Mabee explained, instead, modern grocers pursue an ideal known as “truck to shelf.” As Mabee describes it, “the idea is, you want to take something off the truck and put it on the shelf and not handle it again. That’s as opposed to taking it off the truck, dragging it to the shelf, filling the shelf with what you can, dragging the rest to the back room, then in the afternoon coming out with another five cases and putting them on the shelf because the shelf doesn’t hold enough.” In the latter case, “you’ve got extra labor, you’ve got extra time, you’ve got extra clutter — and it all costs you money.”

So there’s variation from one store to another in the space given to certain products. But many products are treated the same in every Big Bear, according to Bercuson. “Canned milk, for example, would be a standard eight feet,” he attested. He paused in front of that section in the Golden Triangle Big Bear to point out yet another refinement in the store displays. Canned milk happens to be a product that is sold under both national brand names (Carnation, Pet) as well as the private label that Big Bear has used since the 1960s, Family Pride. Such privately labeled products often are identical to the national brands but sell for less because their prices don’t have to include the cost of national advertising.

Bercuson says that whenever possible Big Bear likes to array those products with the goal of drawing attention to the house brand’s lower price. In the canned milk section, the 12-ounce Family Pride can for 59 cents is flanked by the same size Pet can for 65 cents and the 63-cent Carnation. The price differential should then be most obvious. “You want to push your private label because you make a lot of money on it,” Bercuson explained. “We tell the customer that our private-label brand is as good as the national brand, and if they’re not happy...we’ll give them their money back.”

All rules for arranging products have to be juggled from time to time, since the products carried by any supermarket change so often. Bercuson says every week food company sales reps try to convince Big Bear’s executives to carry anywhere from 50 to 100 items that the chain is not carrying. Some are truly new — a new sort of flavored water, such as Snapple — while most are product line extensions, say, Oreos with Double Stuff in a new package size. “We can’t take them all because I’d have to have a store about ten miles long. We have to be selective.” The merchandising manager says Big Bear gives great weight to how the food companies will be helping sell the items — “what kind of coupons, what kind of advertising? Second, we look at whether the item is going to sell to our customer base.” Big Bear finally ends up choosing between 15 and 20 grocery products (plus additional products in other departments) to be added every week. Simultaneously, the same number of slow-moving items must be taken off the chain’s shelves. “We have a schematic on paper for all the stores, and when the new things come in on Mondays, we redo the schematics. Then we walk into each store and change it all around every single week.... It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.”

I asked Bercuson if he thought customers liked all that change. He answered without hesitation. “Customers do not. Customers love to see the items exactly in the same spot every single week.” But “you constantly have to bring in the new items because most of the big manufacturers are promoting these items and they’re going to have coupons in the newspaper on Sunday.” When the customers walk in with those coupons, they want the products to be available. Furthermore, adding and deleting various items helps give the store a fresh look, Bercuson asserts. It may force shoppers to walk down new aisles in the course of looking for things, and “you want to get the customers looking and nosing around. You want them to think a little. They’re looking at different things, and their mind starts to wander.” We passed a sidestack display of beautifully packaged gourmet peppers, the likes of which I’d never seen, and for one irrational instant, I found my thoughts flashing to whether gourmet pepper might make a good present for anyone on my Christmas list.

I said good-bye to Bercuson behind the checkstand area in the front of the store. Over several registers dangled blue cardboard signs encouraging customers to pay for their purchases with credit cards. Big Bear began offering this option a year and a half ago, and the credit transactions — believed to bring in more money per transaction — now constitute 30 percent of the payments in the Golden Triangle store.

One fixture absent from the checkstand is scanning equipment (used by all three of the big chains in town). Mabee instead boasts that every grocery item (bottled, canned, boxed, and bagged goods) in his stores bears a price tag, in contrast to his competitors.

“They’re all in violation of the state law (which says that 80 percent of the items in all stores should carry not only a bar code, but also the price]. My competitors are not marking anything. But no one enforces it,” Mabee says.

That’s not to say that the reason he’s bucked the scanning tide is because of the law. He says he tried scanners in some stores a few years ago and came away unimpressed with the advantages for a company his size. “The scan-type systems do create a tremendous quantity of numbers and reports.” But then people want to justify sitting down and reading them all, says the company president, who thinks his managers can get the same results more simply and inexpensively without the reports. Also,

“We get more rings per minute per average than the scan checker does,” Mabee contends. Scanners commonly fail to pick up bar codes, or codes may be missing from the price file. All the little glitches add up, Mabee says, and “you wind up with 26 to 27 items per minute on scan, versus 33 to 35 on key entry.”

So why does anyone use scanners? Mabee asserts that the big supermarket chains earn a lot of income by selling their scan track data to the big food manufacturers like Nestle, Carnation, Procter & Gamble. They in turn use the data for market research, and when combined with “membership clubs” such as the one Vons has set up, the scan track data can become a powerful marketing tool. “They’ve got your name and address, so you get a coupon package at your home from Procter & Gamble. They know what you buy, and they put together a custom package to get you brand-loyal, even though the quality of the brand [products] is probably not any better or worse than something that somebody else has. But you’ve got the coupon, so you say, ‘Well, I’ll buy that.’ Next time you don’t have the coupon, and you buy it because that’s what you buy.” He shakes his head. “Amazing.”

“Almost frightening” is the way that Mabee characterizes the uses scan track data will he put to in the future. “You’re going to walk into these hig stores, and as you go through the turnstile, you’re going to run your card through something and the computer is going to spit out a coupon for that dog food that your dog likes. It’s going to spit out a coupon for the cereal that your kids cat. And it’s going to suggest that, by the way, you haven’t bought any rice in three months.

Would you like some? That’s too much Big Brother... for me,” the company president declares.

Keying in grocery prices is no big deal, suggests Steve Ashcraft, the number-punching manager at Big Bear’s Golden Triangle store. Ashcraft has worked as a checker; in fact he’s worked for Big Bear in almost every capacity below his current rank. He started 16 years ago at the Big Bear at 54th and El Cajon Boulevard, sweeping floors for two hours in the morning before his (junior year) classes began each day at Crawford High School. “That lasted about six months.” Then he progressed to bagging, straightening shelves, stocking, working the register. He went to college for two years but finally, over the objections of his parents, dropped out at 21 to enter Big Bear’s management program. Now 33, “All 1 know is the grocery business,” he states. He still works at one of the registers for up to a half hour each day, filling in when lines start to build. This wasn’t necessary early on the morning when 1 came to see him, but there was plenty else to occupy him.

He sat behind a metal desk in a spartan office tucked into an unobtrusive corner of the store. A sign on the wall read, “Outstanding Manager 1989.” Another read: “Which way did they go: How many were there? How fast were they going? I must find them, I am their Leader!”

With the use of his calculator and his sales journal, Ashcraft was now computing the sales of every department within the supermarket, comparing them to their performances one year before. Several departments were up, but seafood had declined by $35; liquor by $24. “God!” Ashcraft exclaimed. “That’s close. If you can be down that much, you can be that much up. That’s just a few items. Especially in liquor.”

He bounded up to start his rounds. He wore a crisp white long-sleeved shirt; dark tie and pants; a diver’s watch. His mustache and curly brown hair looked carefully groomed. Slightly stocky, Ashcraft nonetheless moves with a nervous energy that made me quicken my steps as I followed him to the seafood section. There he scooped up a moldy lemon from the cardboard box in front of the display case, then informed the seafood service worker about the previous day’s small dip in sales.

“It kind of died last night,” the man acknowledged.

“Monday night football?”

“Yeah.”

“How are you doing on ad items?” The two men discussed an imminent short supply of sale-priced catfish, with the manager directing the fish worker to try to get more from the Big Bear in Del Mar. Then Ashcraft entered the lair of the supermarket’s butcher, a cold place permeated with the smell of raw meat.

Yesterday’s sales in this department were down the most — $317 below the previous year, a turn that clearly troubled Ashcraft. If there’s any major flaw to his store’s unusual floor plan, it’s the location of the meat department, situated at the very farthest point from the store’s front door, beyond a dauntingly complex liquor department and a solid wall of frozen foods. Ashcraft had already taken the step of stationing a hand-drawn easel-mounted sign listing various meat specials at the front door, but now he was plotting further moves: removing a free-standing display of Pepsi to open up the traffic flow into the department, perhaps adding other easel-mounted signs in the high-traffic dairy and bread departments. “If you want to get a message to your customer, that’s the place to do it,” Ashcraft said.

Nothing about Ashcraft’s demeanor suggested that factors outside his control might be depressing sales in any part of his operation. And yet such factors have been giving grocers industry-wide a lot to be depressed about. For two years now, supermarket sales in real dollars have been fiat or falling, according to the Wall Street Journal, and Big Bear has not been any exception.

“Right now business is basically fiat, and we’re delighted it’s not in the tank,” Larry Mabee told me. As the recession has provoked new levels of price-consciousness, customers have shifted to “cheap eats and belly fillers, trading down on a lot of things,” according to the company president. “We’re selling more of our house label than we have in the past. Brand loyalty has slipped in a lot of areas of town. The ad specials as a percentage of our mix are up. Coupon use has been very strong in the past number of years, and it’s a little stronger even now. And our bad check losses are up there too. It’s all indicative of having problems out there in the system.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, the “warehouse club” stores such as the Price Club have begun to nip out a worrisome portion of the supermarkets’ business. According to the Food Marketing Institute, the clubs’ share of retail food sales has climbed from nothing in 1974 (when they first appeared) to 6.2 percent today. The number of such outlets should double over the next ten years, the FMI estimates, and if traditional supermarkets don’t fight back, so could their share of total sales.

Mabee says, “I’ve always worked on the premise that if you sell peanuts in the shell and somebody sets up a crate in front of your store and starts selling peanuts in the shell, they’re probably going to take some of your peanut business away.” Some observers have raised the question of whether Big Bear hasn’t already lost so much business, peanut and otherwise, as to spell the end of the chain. In the past year, Mabee has closed the Big Bear on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights and sold two of his North County stores to an Arizona chain called Mega Foods. But the company president says, “We have no desire right now to get out of the business.” He says he probably won’t be opening any new stores until the economy improves, but at the same time, “Our debt ratios are minor....I am trenched in and dug in and here to stick it out.”

Ashcraft echoes that note of feisty perseverance. “You’ve got to react” to every drop in sales, he told me. “You’ve got to get right on it!” Continuing on his rounds, he had kind words for the produce department, whose sales the previous day were up five percent. But the produce workers gave the store manager something to fret about: they were running low on large beefsteak tomatoes (on sale for 59 cents a pound). And they were almost out of Italian squash.

By 9:00 a.m., Ashcraft had assigned workers to search for reinforcement vegetables and grabbed a grocery cart to make his first round of the store aisles. He wheeled briskly up and down, alert for any hint of dishevelment. At a stack of potato chips displayed on the end of one aisle, he retrieved an abandoned blue plastic drinking tumbler. A few steps further on, he paused to fuss with an arrangement of Little Debbies. “I just really believe in order,” he told me. And this is the time of day when he expects to Find the store in its most perfect incarnation.

To see the Golden Triangle Big Bear at the opposite extreme — looking its worst — I had to drop in late one night. It was shortly before 11 on a Thursday, one of the three times a week when this store receives groceries from Big Bear’s warehouse. Maybe a dozen customers remained in the store: single men, college girls in sweat pants. I roamed among them, searching the aisles for barren patches, and found that all the chocolate chip-flavored Carnation Slender bars ($2.99 for eight) were missing; so were the giant jugs of lemon-lime Gatorade and a few other items. And every aisle bore subtler signs of erosion.

For almost 16 hours, shoppers had been snatching up bags and cans and cartons helter-skelter. In their wake, the shelves looked like mouths with lots of teeth missing.

Almost immediately after I arrived, Mark Weinbrecht and his night crew began compounding the mess.

A tall, lean man with the body of a basketball player, Weinbrecht bears heavy responsibility for bringing the “truck-to-shelF’ concept to life at this s,c e. On three nights per week, he orders groceries, aided by the electronic marvel that’s now standard in the grocery industry — a tiny hand-held computer attached to a sensor pen. To order any product, the store employee uses the pen to scan the product’s bar code (attached to the front of the shelf)- Moving in one direction records a request for one case; going the other way enables the employee to key in the number needed. The tiny computer stores this data and then later transmits it to the warehouse over a phone line. The technology may expedite the process, but it still requires considerable human judgment about when and how much to order: you want to call for more of an item only when what’s on the shelf won’t last until the delivery after next. Furthermore, some of the shelves at the Big Bear are set so close to one another that it’s hard to see how many cans remain behind the front row. “Sometimes I almost have to guess,” Weinbrecht commented.

That’s one of the few things he told me on the night when I observed his crew in operation. The rest of the time, he and his two assistants were moving too fast to talk, and Steve Ashcraft had warned me not to slow them down. They’re expected to process 47 cases an hour. That gives them one minute and 17 seconds in which to transport each case from the rear of the store to the front, open it, stamp prices on the contents, and stack them neatly on the shelf.

Of course, the load crew members don’t carry each case off the receiving bay individually. Instead they zoom out of the back room hauling hand trucks stacked high with cases. On the night that I observed them, they parked these cardboard towers in strategic spots around the store, then slit open the plastic wrap holding them together, and raced to disperse the individual boxes. Some they tossed about like pillows; others they sent sliding across the slick linoleum. One young man favored using a smaller hand cart like a scooter; he whizzed around on it at astonishing speeds. When each box had been deposited somewhere near its proper shelf, the scooter rider began slashing open box after box like a homicidal maniac. Then all the men affixed prices to each item in each box faster than 1 could time them without a stopwatch. In the final step, as they briskly incorporated the new arrivals into the unsold boxes and jars and cans, they looked like master sergeants bringing their unruly troops to a bristling attention.

These were the ranks inspected by Ashcraft on the morning I accompanied him. He also passed several men still stocking various shelves. These were representatives of independent distributors from which Big Bear gets certain items — paperback books, a number of breads. In front of the Bohemian Hearth brand, Ashcraft stopped to complain about how some of the stone-ground loaves were arriving with one end flattened. The delivery man looked bored. “If you want, I just won’t leave any,” he drawled.

“I want you to leave bread, but I don’t want you to leave bread that’s in this condition," Ashcraft retorted. “Do you think someone’s going to buy that? I wouldn’t want to!” He stomped off to the back of the store to instruct his crew not to let any more squashed loaves on the premises, then headed for his office to call the delivery man’s superior.

“Turns out they’re having a production problem,” Ashcraft told me. He looked mollified. The supervisor had assured him the driver wasn’t supposed to be delivering any defective loaves. Other parts of Ashcraft’s phone work were more frustrating. A produce worker had reported in sick, and four or five calls failed to net Ashcraft a replacement. He also was having a devil of a time finding extra beefsteak tomatoes. The Big Bear in Del Mar did have some spare Italian squash, but someone would have to drive over to collect it. And before Ashcraft could finish solving all those problems, he had to check on his ad items.

These change every week, and on this Tuesday morning Ashcraft was assessing both the items that had gone on sale the previous Thursday, as well as the new group that would go on sale in two more days. “You gotta keep your ad items in stock,” he told me. This task takes extra attention, since lowering the price of an item and advertising that fact causes most things to sell faster than usual — so much faster that grocers have to keep extra supplies on hand in the back room, an exception to the normal truck-to-shelf operation. On this particular day, Ashcraft did a quick count of what was left in the back room and found that Handiwrap supplies were running low.

He ordered an extra case. Then in the front of the store, he studied the advertising flier that would be mailed to Big Bear’s customers by Thursday (the chain no longer uses display ads in the food section of the Union-Tribune).

“You get a feel for how much to order based on experience,” Ashcraft said. “As a new manager, I used to keep records of everything. I actually had an index file with all the items (that went on sale) alphabetized, and I would record how many I ordered and how many I sold.” Now the patterns were embedded in his memory. Seeing that Hinckley & Schmitt Mountain Spring Water would be on sale for 52 cents, versus the normal $ 1.05 per gallon, Ashcraft confidently called for 50 extra cases. He studied the flier and noted that the two-for-one coupon for popcorn had been placed right at the top of the front page. “I’d better double my order,” he muttered.

Why worry so much about running out? “It’s a customer dissatisfier!” he fired back. “The way I look at it, when you’re advertising an item, you’re making a promise to somebody that that item’s going to be there at the store. And if they come and it’s not there, I think that a rain check is unacceptable. That’s our backup — to offer the rain check, or if they don’t want it, to substitute something that’s comparable. But I don’t want to get to that point. I’ll work until I’m blue in the face to make sure that we’ve done everything we possibly can to get that item here, short of driving to Los Angeles to get it.”

Ht 11:00 a.m., Ashcraft announced to me that it was “show time” and raced off on one more inspection tour. He stopped in the bakery, where the brownie sign needed straightening and the dome on the sample tray, polishing. In the service deli, he spot-checked the weight of a roast chicken, then charged on to the produce section, where he paused to admire the scene spread out before him. “Notice how well (the produce manager] keeps what we call a ’horizon line,’ ” the store manager said, gesturing to the row of greenery along one wall. “All the vegetables rise to the same height, and the depth also is level across the rack. It takes real skill to accomplish that.” He felt further heartened in the meat department, where the butcher had spent most of the morning filling the cases with plastic-wrapped packages three and four and five layers deep. “Look at all the variety he’s got out now in the chicken. You’ve got half breasts, boneless skinless, half breasts skin-on, boneless skin-on breasts, wings, drummettes, drumsticks, your whole fryers.... Look at the ground turkey! Three rows of it. Other stores might not even carry it or just have one row. But we go through eight to ten cases per week.” Ashcraft stepped back. “Doesn’t that look beautiful? It says ‘Buy me! Shop me!’ ”

By noon that day I could tell that Ashcraft was getting eager for me to leave. He was hungry; the morning mail was stacked up on his desk, unopened. He still had innumerable calls to make. He had the coming week’s “end displays” to plan.

Moreover, as of noon, a quick tally of all the cash registers showed that the store’s sales that day were $434 down from what they had been the previous Tuesday at that hour. If this trend continued, Ashcraft might have to send some workers home in the afternoon.

He suggested that if I had only a few more questions, I could return at 1:30. So I came back then. I found the manager transformed. In the 90-minute interval, he had found a clerk to resolve the labor shortage in the produce department. Another worker would be bringing in the Italian squash on his way in to work. Ashcraft had once again reviewed the stock of beefsteak tomatoes and finally judged that his staff was overreacting to the threat of imminent shortage. “We have plenty to get us through tonight.” Furthermore, sales through the lunch hour had picked up to the point that by 1:00 p.m. the store had caught up with its performance the previous week. Everything was running smoothly — for this hour at least — and Ashcraft looked about as contented as a supermarket manager can be.

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