Which would you prefer? No price markings on products if some cost less: Giant shoppers -- 53%, Safeway and A&P shoppers -- 45%. All products marked even with the old prices: Giant shoppers -- 17%, Safeway and A&P shoppers -- 24%.
Giant Food has dropped the other shoe, but on a carpeted floor. And the reaction among consumers has been a cautious yawn.
With its electronic scanning cash registers no longer making price markings necessary on its packages, Giant announced last week that prices -- except for meat and produce -- would no longer be marked on individual packages, but only on the shelves. At the same time, it was passing on to the consumer the savings realized from this new policy -- and then some -- by reducing prices on 2,400 of its stores' 15,000 products, many of them 20 to 30 cents, some more than $1, and guaranteeing, "If the scanned price is more than the shelf price, you get one of the items free."
By last Wednesday, after considerable advertising and media attention, word had gotten around; and to the extent that a survey of 60 customers of one neighborhood's supermarkets (Giant, Safeway and A & P) is representative, people were putting their money where their mouths are. Of the Giant shoppers, nearly everyone knew of the dual changes, and most -- reacting more to the reduced prices than to the absence of price markings -- were enthusiastic; they liked the old prices. Three-to-one, they preferred the new policy -- as long as the prices remained lower; only one-sixth preferred to have individual markings even if it meant keeping the old prices, and nearly one-third didn't care or had not formed an opinion. Thus, while shoppers clearly preferred to have items individually marked, most were willing to give up that preference in light of reduced prices.
At an A & P and Safeway in the neighborhood of the Giant surveyed, over two-thirds of the customers said they also shopped at Giant, whereas two-thirds of the Giant shoppers were regulars. While the Safeway shoppers cited "convenience" and the A & P shoppers "low prices and double coupons" most frequently as the reasons they were at those stores, one-fourth of them said they preferred to have prices marked on their packages even if it meant keeping prices at the old level; slightly less than half were willing to give up individual markings in favor of low prices.
While shoppers favored, as several put it, "anything that's cheaper," many were cautious about how long the price reductions were going to last, whether they were just a temporary come-on for introducing unmarked packages.
Customers expressed distrust of computer checkout when they could not verify prices at the cash register. They raised problems of being unable to compute how much they could buy when they were short of cash, and of being unable to compare the price of new purchases with those on their shelves at home. They worried about picking up the wrong -- and more expensive -- package inadvertently when it was misplaced on a shelf. And there were complaints, especially from the elderly, about the visability of prices marked on the shelves; lower shelves and frozen food counters were cited as particular problems. While at one Giant a customer found the shelf markings clearer than ever, at another, where a bagger said the store had been mobbed earlier in the week, boxes were in the aisles, making shelf prices hard to read.
Giant recognizes these problems; as a spokesman said, "We fully realize that for some people we are talking about a change of habit." But the problems, as Giant sees them, are not major problems, merely requiring that people keep a running total of items in their baskets, save receipt tapes for later comparison, and examine labels carefully to see that they match shelf-price descriptions.
In general, shoppers cared about lower prices. As one Giant shopper explained her preference for lower prices even at the expense of individual markings, "I'd rather have lower prices on the items and take the chance of having a few mistakes. In the balance, even with mistakes you come out ahead." Shoppers also appreciated unit pricing, which allows than to accurately compare the price of one product to another. Giant shoppers liked their computerized receipts that show clearly the price of each item.
Giant Foods has declared the reaction to this week's changes "very positive; the positive has far outweighed the negative." Asked how they could afford to lower prices, a spokesman said, "We feel that we can increase our volume. If we increase our volume, we can afford to do it." In other words, he explained, the cost saved in not marking prices on items is not enough to warrant the price decreases; increased volume is a necessary part of the formula.
In the meantime, Safeway has reduced prices on 2,000 items and issued a statement that it "is and will be competitive in the marketplace." With electronic scanners in less than 10 percent of its stores, it is in no position to remove individual price markings. One customer pointed out this gives Safeway the advantage -- since its new prices are marked over the old, higher ones on the packages -- of making its reduction more visible than Giant's.
The question remains, then, with a price war apparently building, whether Giant can increase its volume enough to keep it prices down. If the program does not work, will Giant return to individual price markings? The Giant spokesman answered only, "We have not contemplated that 'if'."
The clearest conclusion the surveyor could draw, therefore, after a day of polling shoppers was, "It's a good week to stock up on canned goods and staples."