One of the tasks of moving to a new community is selecting and becoming acquainted with a new grocery store. Grocery shopping is so much easier in a familiar store where I know where to find the cream of celery soup.
So what prompts an old retired guy to write about grocery shopping? Well, (a) I like to eat and (b) I have been assisting with grocery shopping since I was my mother’s “little helper.” My bathroom scale will confirm (a) and you’ll have to trust me on (b.)
I’m sure I was more of a pest than a helper in 1953 when my two brothers and I accompanied our mother when she shopped at Ellingson’s U-Save in Ellworth.
In early 1956 we moved three miles west to Jewell, home to at least four grocery stores at the time. My mother, now “assisted” by four sons, shopped regularly at Paul’s U-Save which offered most everything we needed in its small street front location. Main Street back then also offered Jack Spratt, Royal Blue and Briardale food stores.
In 1960 my family moved into the neighboring Kamrar community which still had a grocery store at the time. Billmar Grocery was a small, tired old store and it closed a year or so after we moved there.
About that time my mother began shopping regularly at the Fareway Food Store in nearby Webster City. In the early ’60s the Fareway Store was located in a small store front on a busy intersection in our county seat’s downtown.
Fareway built a new, much larger store in Webster City in the late ’60s, about the time Hy-Vee took over a former United Food Store there. A locally-owned supermarket and several neighborhood food stores served the community then but have since disappeared.
My Webster City native wife and I married in late 1969 and spent our first four years together in her hometown where we shopped at both Hy-Vee and Fareway. When she and I (and our year old son) moved to Sioux City in early 1974 we faced a few mini-culture shocks. Among them was the lack of a familiar food store. Piggly Wiggly, Sunshine, Hinky Dinky, Safeway and a handful of independents were all unfamiliar to us.
We were delighted when Hy-Vee opened a store in Sioux City in, I think, 1978. The store was some 20 minutes from our home, but we regularly made the drive anyway.
Hy-Vee did well in Sioux City and soon some of the established grocery stores began to close, including three Safeway Stores. In the early 1980s it was announced that Fareway Food Stores was going to open in two of the former Safeway buildings. We were delighted again.
Shopping in stores we were familiar with, even if the store layouts were different from those back home, was comforting. Though I have moved a few more times since our Sioux City days I have subsequently lived in (or near) communities with familiar Hy-Vee and Fareway Stores.
From 2000-2006 my job involved traveling Iowa and I was pleased to find excellent independent food stores and regional chains around the state. I have no significant retail experience but I am aware that operating a successful grocery store — chain or independent — in today’s fiercely competitive environment is a major challenge.
Sioux City’s first Hy-Vee store director, Terry Brown, conducted a workshop for media folks in the early ’80s. After feeding us a free supper in the store’s deli, he gave us each a paper bag containing 100 pennies which represented the store’s monthly revenue. He then explained the cost of each aspect of a supermarket’s operation – inventory, utilities, labor, waste, theft, etc. – and for each cost category took a corresponding number of pennies from us. At the end of the evening we each had one penny left. Brown helped us understand the very narrow margin of profit on which modern supermarkets operate.
Call me a nerd if you wish but after decades of working closely with supermarket managers (as a newspaper ad director and publisher) I admire a well-stocked, well-managed food store.
My bathroom scale will tell you why.