Berries, Pizza and a Smile

I walked into Trader Joe’s last Sunday and spent $54 on a gallon of milk. Truth be told, it was the strawberries, frozen pizza, extra dog treats, new kind of low-fat cheese and that tempting bottle of Prosecco wine that drove up the bill — none of which I’d intended to buy, and all of which I’ll use … someday. In other words, on this trip, like so many others, I turned a big chunk of disposable income over to Trader Joe’s — and not to Ralphs, Vons or Albertsons.

From October 2003 to February 2004, workers at those three supermarket chains went out on strike to ensure affordable health care, as well as to protect their pensions and job security. It was the longest strike in the history of the supermarket industry, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Web site, and the first major strike of the 21st century. At the end of 141 days, estimates say that the Big Three chains lost more than $2 billion. And in addition to lost wages during the strike, the workers lost a great deal more, having agreed to a two-tier system that allowed stores to bring in new hires at significantly lower wages and benefits.

As we read about the increasingly heated fight brewing now between 65,000 workers and management at those same chains, where union members last month authorized another strike, we’re once again told that it’s all about keeping costs low to prepare for the influx of the big-box stores like Wal-Mart. But the greater threat to the Big Three might be the better service we get at smaller neighborhood haunts, many of them locally owned. My family’s buying habits changed dramatically — and enduringly — as a result of the last strike.

Before 2004, I was a regular Ralphs shopper. We spent as much as $600 to $700 per month there for food and other household supplies. Now, if we spend one-tenth of that per month at the Big Three combined, it’s unusual. That’s because I became comfortable dividing my shopping among places that serve the customer by providing goods efficiently and still at a good price.

This often means several stops during the week — at Trader Joe’s, where we can get most of our staples, and Western Kosher on Fairfax Avenue (great hummus!), Smart & Final (cleaning supplies), the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market (fruit and vegetables) and Mayfair (my favorite salad dressing).

It’s not hard to get over the convenience of the big stores when you get much better service in the smaller venues. I find, too, that it’s often a matter of stopping for a quick drop-in while making my other rounds, without going out of my way.

The issue for me came down to dealing as much as possible with businesses that care. At Mayfair there was no strike because a vow was made from the start to respect the new contract, whatever it might bring. At Trader Joe’s, workers like their jobs because it’s a fun place to work and the company offers benefits and good salaries.

The Big Three are continuing to look for ways to cut costs on their workers’ backs. Not satisfied with the two-tier system they established with the last contract, the owners want to create a third tier, which would even further pinch new hires.

At my favorite Trader Joe’s the other day, the woman ringing me up noticed that I’d picked up some items from the display at the store entrance.

“I guess it’s working,” she said, with evident pride in her voice.

She’d come in at 6 a.m. to set up a strawberry and wine display, and it was clearing out quickly. The day before, she said, the same space had been occupied by basil plants. She was happy with the job and that it made a difference. It was good marketing, but also attractive and seasonal. I fell under her spell.

But there was more to it than that — her sense of the fun of it. I asked her how long she’d been working for the company, and when she told me 13 years, I asked for her take on what was happening with the Big Three; she looked chagrined.

“No comparison,” she said, shaking her head and not wanting to elaborate.

I’m carefully watching the progress in the supermarket negotiations, but I’ve already moved on. The last strike broke my loyalty to the chains and my heart. Many of the employees I’d gotten to know at Ralphs, which I’d patronized for years, left my neighborhood store during their months on the picket lines. Perhaps they couldn’t afford to wait it out, perhaps they found other employment. When the strike was over, I tried to talk with a few clerks in the checkout lines, but they were reticent — working hard to keep the long lines flowing. No eye contact, no time to make a connection. I understand their pain, and I do care, so I’m not boycotting entirely. I still root for the union workers, but the fact is, the ones I know are mostly gone. Those who stayed have always seemed unsettled, insecure — and I hope their lot improves.

In stores where employees are happy, people can be people, and everyone wins. Workers take a moment to ask or answer a question, to engage the customer. That extra second to stop and smile comes easier, and if it’s not too prolonged, even those waiting in lines don’t seem to mind.

The Talmud teaches that we should respect those who work for us, even at our own expense. It makes good business sense. Because that extra smile of satisfaction often leads to the extra dollar spent — on that bottle of wine that wasn’t needed in the first place.

The funny thing is, shopping around has proved not only pleasant, but also just as economical. Because I totaled it up the other day, just to see how much that gallon of milk really cost me. And when I looked at my month’s bills, two years later, even with the extras, even though my money has gone elsewhere, my family’s monthly bill hadn’t really changed.

Rob Eshman is on assignment.