With her two tiny children in tow, Norma Buchanan, 30, of Billings, Mont., whizzed through the wide aisles of a Denver Safeway supermarket.
"I think it's great. There's nothing wrong with reducing prices," she said.
Buchanan has been visiting Denver for three weeks, and arrived just before the start of a kind of modern western shootout among the area's three largest supermarket chains.
The price war, as it is called here, began Aug. 1 when Safeway lowered prices significantly on 350 "major items," said John Shepherd, spokesman for the company's Colorado division. The next day, King Soopers and Albertson's, the other large area chains, matched the Safeway reductions.
Ever since, it has been cat and mouse for the supermarkets and a field day for food shoppers.
The Carter administration is trying to elevate the issue of grocery prices to a national level. Last Monday, the president told supermarket executives at a White House meeting that he was "disturbed" that recent decreases in farm prices have not yet shown up at the grocery store. The Denver experience, despite White House jawboning, remains atypical.
The battlefield on which the war is being waged is the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies -- the thickly populated strip of land from Fort Collins in the north down through Denver and Colorado Springs to Pueblo in the South. Safeway has 84 stores in the region; King Soopers, 50, and Albertson's trails with 24.
Safeway announced its somewhat complicated plan Aug. 1 in local newspapers. It took out eight full pages of advertisements in the Denver Post that day, and by Aug. 15 had increased its blitz to 11 full pages.
The ads not only compared Safeway prices with those of the other chains on more than 100 items, but also pointed out pricing differences between Safeway locally and the company's stores elsewhere in the country.
The Safeway plan calls for reduction of some items for a week, cuts on others for two or three weeks and indefinite price cuts on still other items. Although most of the reductions are in the 10-cent to 20-cent range, there have been cuts of up to a dollar on more expensive products, Shepherd said. Although it is mostly grocery items that are affected, there have been cuts on produce and meats as well, he said.
"If customers break our doors down, the reductions will last forever," Shepherd said.
On Friday, King Soopers president Jim Baldwin said the "war" had had "no effect" thus far on business volume at his stores.
Baldwin also questioned use of the term "price war" to describe the current competitiveness.
"A 'war' would be if they cut some prices and then we undercut them. We're matching them for now," he said, adding, "Price war is a media term as far as we're concerned."
Baldwin says the Safeway move was sparked by King Soopers' success in the Front Range area. Despite Safeway's considerable edge in number of stores, King Soopers is in first place along the Front Range, Baldwin contended. Although no one in the competitive supermarket business here is willing to speculate on the long-term effects of the retail battle, an independent grocer said he believes the big chains will just take customers from one another, leaving the mom-and-pop operations essentially unchanged.
Among the reductions that heralded the war three weeks ago were a price of $1.12 on a 9-ounce can of Chicken of the Sea tuna at Safeway, compared with $1.22 at the other two chains; a 50-cent cut on an eight-ounce can of Sanka; and a price of $3.49 for a 12-pack of Coors beer, while King Soopers and Albertson's were charging $3.60.
All three chains are making cuts in both brand name and generic products, and at Safeway the news is proclaimed in hundreds of yellow and black signs throughout each store.
Though Safeway is taking the lead in the struggle to get a larger share, both Baldwin of King Soopers and Carl Pennington, vice president of Albertson's, indicated their stores will keep pace with the Safeway cuts.
The three chains have added to the original list of several hundred sale items since hostilities were declared Aug. 1
Safeway's Shepherd downplayed the possibility that prices would rise even higher than they were before the battle if price-cutting doesn't increase volume significantly.
"If it doesn't go well, we will have to try something else," he said. "A merchant can't afford to bounce the prices back up."