NOT TOO TERRIBLY LONG AGO, in a moment of acute disorganization, I found myself in a Giant supermarket checkout line around 11 o'clock in the evening. I purchased a package of diapers and a gallon of milk and with only two items I qualified for the express checkout. It was just as well. None of the other checkout lines was open anyway. Instead, the entire supermarket opertion focused on the express checkout line, which was manned by a checker and overseen by a rent-a-cop. There was one person ahead of me, and no one behind me. In fact, as far as I could tell, there didn't seem to be another soul in the entire store.
What brings this to mind is this week's announcement by Giant that it is removing prices from individual items in a move that it claims will save the store and, hence, consumers money. It now appears, according to a story by Molly Sinclair in yesterday's Washington Post, that the savings will amount to the grand sum of less than half a percent per $100 spent by a consumer. A savings of less than 40 cents per $100 is not exactly worth writing home about. Nor is it worth the wasted time and the inconvenience of hunting around the shelves for the item price and trying to remember what the item cost so you can make sure you are not ripped off at the checkout counter.
Giant has magnanimously offered its customers grease pencils with which they can record the shelf price on the item -- and I cannot repeat here what my husband, for example, said when he stopped at the store this week and found out that if he didn't like the disappearing prices than he could use a grease pencil and mark prices himself.
While the small savings in labor may indeed not be worth the aggravation to consumers who can no longer see the price on each item, Giant's move is at least a public commitment to trying to cut prices. And for once, supermarkets and consumers seem to agree than any reasonable thing that can be done to reduce prices is a good thing.
For all the strain on the pocketbook, shopping in the supermarket is still a fairly cushy experience. You can shop almost anytime, day or night. Giant, for example, has 84 of its 127 stores open 24 hours a day, which means they are only closed late Sunday or Saturday night. And while stocking of shelves also goes on in stores at night now, a simplified inventory might reduce the need for this. As it is now, you can select from a wide variety of brandname tomato sauces, mushrooms, canned vegetables and juices and so forth. Never mind that they all look and taste suspiciously alike. With the mere motion of a hand you can reach into vast rows of open freezers to get whatever you want. Stores are cold enough in the summer that you need a sweater.
A Washington Post poll released yesterday showed that 17 percent of the people are skipping meals in order to save money, 20 percent say they ate worse than they did a year ago, and 69 percent say they are spending a greater portion of their money on food than a year ago. Things have gotten to such a state that American consumers might even be willing to tolerate a little hardship at the supermarket. If these inconveniences could be translated into lower food bills, consumers might happily accept shorter supermarket hours, less variety on the shelves, less air conditioning in the summer and enclosed display of frozen or refrigerated products. These are ways that stores could save substantial amounts of money, certainly more than they are doing by making the prices more difficult to see.
Discount supermarkets such as Basics have devised perfectly acceptable ways of cutting costs at the same time that consumers are kept fully informed about prices. Basics has figured out that a store can fulfill most customers' desire for variety by offering a brand name of tomatoes and, say, a Basics brand of tomatoes. How many of us really need four different brands of canned tomatoes to choose from?
Basics further cuts costs by no-frills display techniques, by packaging food in volume and by having its customers bag their own groceries and take them to their cars. This, I admit, is much easier on customers who have 15-year-old sons who can be gently persuaded that if they don't bag, they don't eat. Some consumers might be reluctant to do their own bagging, but many of us might not be. Not only does this save the family money, but it teaches family responsibility. This is certainly not a service that stores are providing for free. Why couldn't supermarkets offer a discount on the total bill to the consumers who bag their own merchandise?
Some years ago, consumers did wheel their own groceries to their cars and load them in by themselves. They also ground their own coffee and the coffee section of the stores smelled terrific. People shopped during the daytime and early evenings and if stores stayed open until 9 o'clock one night a week they closed early the rest of the time. And food costs less. There was not this ridiculous scene of having two people shopping in a Super Giant at 11 o'clock in the evening, watched over by an armed guard, and making purchases that came nowhere near paying for the zillion dollars worth of electricity that was necessary to keep the store lit, heated and refrigerated.
I was able to get what I needed, but every one of us paid. Someone should have complained.