Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lost in the Supermarket

I'm what you'd call a bit of a supermarket nerd. While most people balk at the idea of grocery shopping and attempt to combine all of their purchasing into one weekly trip, I'd go every day if I could. Or, if my wife would let me.

One of the single greatest times in my life was my post-college years spent in scenic, historic Haddonfield, NJ. Not because of the bucolic setting and carefree existence of a fun-loving zine publisher. Not even the fact that my post office box – frequently overflowing with zines, CDs and movies – was just a Whiffle Ball blast away. Instead, it was the proximity of the local supermarket that made this picture postcard setting so hard to leave.

Living in Haddonfield was like spending a couple years in France for my roommates and me. There was no menu planning, bulk buying, coupon clipping or meat freezing. Hell no! With the Acme just a couple blocks away we could swing by practically any time of the day or night and indulge whatever culinary – and I use that term loosely – whim struck us. And if that whim somehow included such items as Kraut Juice or bricks of lard, the Acme was only too happy to oblige.

Granted, daily trips to the Acme did have their drawbacks, including a relationship with grocery store staff that was perhaps too familiar. But that seemed more a problem for my female roomie than me.

These days, demands on my time are a bit more increased than they were at the tender age of 23. Work, home life, child care, free time, etc. all add up to a schedule that almost demands more pre-planning and less dilly-dallying. Thankfully, I'm usually able to squeeze in an extra trip or two under the more mundane guise of grabbing a needed ingredient for that night's dinner or getting some cash for the sitter.

And with the grand opening of an all-new Giant store just up the road, local supermarketers have given me yet another reason to stop, shop and, occasionally, save.

Up until recently my grocery shopping was largely a two-store affair. SuperFresh usually received the largest portion of our weekly grocery budget, thanks to their convenient location near the post office and Office Depot as well as the closest Starbucks.

Wegmans still makes a play for me but being a fickle shopper with no allegiance I've found myself less satisfied by my trips to their lavish Hunt Valley store. Yes, the prepared foods remain great (especially the Mediterranean bar, sushi, meatloaf and macaroni salad) but the store lacked little things, including self-checkout lanes (which they rectified during a recent remodeling) and double coupons, not to mention the nagging perception that I was spending more and saving less each time I shopped there.

Sure, the store boasted nicer produce than SuperFresh, a better selection at the nearby liquor store, and a handy Redbox for renting and returning DVDs. But that couldn't assuage the feeling I got when I looked at my receipt and saw bonus "savings" that barely added up to pocket change. Maybe the everyday prices at Wegmans were competitive with what I was saving as a SuperFresh "Bonus Card Member" but it sure never felt that way, and each drive home from the store was filled with festering guilt.

And so, I'd reached a happy medium with my grocery shopping. SuperFresh was firmly ensconced as top dog and Wegmans was a reliable but dispensable sidekick, like Justin Bartha in the NATIONAL TREASURE movies. Not a leading man but a "hey it's that guy"-type you're happy to see when he shows up in the trailer for THE HANGOVER.

Naturally, just when I'd reached this "happy place" somebody had to come along and attempt to ruin everything.

Up until this point my relationship with the area Giant was purely casual. Even below casual, if there is such a thing. Located in a hard-to-get-into-hard-to-get-out-of dying shopping center, the Giant (right) was one of those places I went as a last resort or if I needed one of two things: Bacon Salt or a movie at Redbox. Other than that I had little or no reason to venture through its doors. (I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that I occasionally shopped the Giant simply because one of the area's better liquor stores was right next door.)

In other words, the news that the decrepit Giant was being shuttered in favor of a brand new Giant opening at the rehabbed shopping center up the road meant little to me. At first. But the supermarket nerd in me couldn't help but be lured in by $5 off coupons and the possibilities the new store might hold. Deli kiosk? Hi-tech ordering gadgetry? Who knew what grocery goodies might lay beyond those automatic doors?

When the new store held its grand opening I was kind of jealous that Chris got to experience it first. I pressed her for details as soon as she came home from the maiden voyage. She mentioned there might have been some sort of deli ordering system but that the aisles were too packed to really nail down any specifics.

So, with Ryan in tow I headed out mid-week to see how the store would fair once the big grand opening weekend fanfare had subsided. More importantly, I wanted to know if Giant might be the perfect combination of everything good about Wegmans (superior prepared food, nice produce, excellent international product selection), SuperFresh (easy access, good sales, self-checkouts), and the stores of my dreams (did I mention the deli kiosk?).

Right off the bat it should be noted that a move up York Road did nothing to make Giant easier to get into or out of. The newly renovated shopping center feels like little more than a maze of short parking aisles, speed bumps, control line violators and awkwardly-located stop signs. I've discovered a back way or two into the complex but some enterprising lawyer should open an office in one of the center's few empty storefronts.

But, I can take haphazardly-designed parking lots if the spaces are ample. That is certainly not the case here. In an effort to squeeze in as many spots as possible, there's little or simply no room between cars. And don't forget where you're parked because there'll be no squeezing your shopping cart between cars to get over a row or two. And pity those of us who have gone shopping with our toddler along for the ride. Juggling a youngster and their various books, juice cups and/or stuffed animals while you're trying not to bang the door into the car next to you can be a challenge in the roomiest parking lots. Here it's like somebody is playing a hidden camera prank.

With Ryan (and Curious George) safely belted into a cart I figured I'd fuel up with a quick coffee and make my way through the bright store (an improvement over the frequently cave-like SuperFresh whose dim lighting often feels like a cost-cutting measure). Shockingly, Giant lacks even the most rudimentary of coffee bars, opting instead for a vending machine that appears to dispense a variety of flavored coffees, lattes and espressos for shoppers on the go. I say "appears to" because the vending machine was only accepting $1.25 exact change purchases and didn't have a credit/debit option.

In other words, I was barely ten feet inside the door and Giant already had more than a few strikes against it.

All – or nearly all – was forgiven as soon as I set my eyes upon, yep, the deli kiosk. (Cue the hearts floating above my head as my knees go weak.) A slightly more advanced version of the deli system I fell in love with years ago at Genuardi's in Bucks County, PA, Giant's system also features the ability to save favorite orders and access them with your shoppers card not to mention an order alert system that texts your cell phone when your lunchmeat is ready.

I'd probably like the system even better if it wasn't jammed right up against the deli counter and produce section, one of the busiest areas of any grocery store. I'd love to see Giant take a cue from Genuardi's (or, in a major move, Wegmans!) and place the deli kiosk right inside the front door or in a less high-traffic area but, hey, I'm just glad somebody has stepped into the 21st century!

The rest of my initial trip through the neo-Giant's a bit-too-narrow aisles was uneventful. The aforementioned brightness was a plus but that apparently didn't trickle down to either the customers or employees. Basic rules of the grocery-store-road were thrown out the window and fellow shoppers annoyingly abandoned carts mid-aisle in order to pursue some bright, shiny object while workers took to parking pallets, cut down boxes and product carts pretty much anywhere and everywhere.

I'll give Giant an A when it comes to being more technologically-advanced than the competition. Besides the deli kiosk and self-checkouts, the store also features a snazzy hand-held pricing gun checkout system that lets you ring up and bag your order as you walk through the store. Based on your purchasing habits the pricing gun will even send you limited-time-only offers you can snatch up during the trip. $1 off Ballpark Franks? Don't mind if I do!

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the process of ringing up my purchases (maybe a little too much) and I'm always keen to bag my order, trying to do both at once taxed even my multi-tasking skills. The system also stressed the nagging Catholic guilt that was drummed into my brain over the course of 13 years of schooling. I found myself repeatedly checking to make sure the gun had properly registered each and every purchase, lest I end up on some Shoplifter's Database, banned from enjoying life's little pleasures like some kind of card counter shown the door at a Vegas casino.

EPILOGUE: Despite their high-tech gadgetry and the arrival of a bonus card emblazoned with their new logo, I haven't been to Giant more than once or twice in the last few months. SuperFresh has won me back with a steady stream of $10 and 20% off coupons not to mention the underappreciated simplicity of a parking lot that requires neither a GPS nor a lawyer on retainer to navigate. As for Wegmans, I love the addition of self-checkouts and – yep – a deli kiosk in the store's entryway, but a recent remodel made the back corners of the store seem like sad, lonely places.

1 comment:

Synd-e said...

I think the Giant supermarkets above the Mason-Dixon Line are actually a different company that those below. It's a different logo here in PA, and the website is different.

Lately my food shopping has been a mash-up of Giant, Trader Joe's, and Target. And BJ's Warehouse Club. (And yes, since at times I have the maturity level of a 14-year-old boy, I still giggle when referring to "BJs".)

My ideal supermarkets were located back in Champaign IL - Meijer (which is like a Super Wal-Mart on acid), and Schunck's.

Good analysis though. Maybe someone from the corporation will read it!