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Supermarkets, workers fight old battle with new risks

Music teacher Debra Shrader buys her family's chocolate fix at Trader Joe’s near her home in Rolling Hills. She also likes the selection of nuts and fruit.

"We grow our own vegetables and I shop at the farmer’s market so I don’t need a whole lot of fresh things," she says in the parking lot. "But Trader Joe’s carries the things I need."

Shrader discovered that during the grocery store labor dispute eight years ago.

Before the strike, she shopped at Ralphs, one of the “Big Three” along with Vons and Albertsons. Each week, she’d march into Ralphs with an envelope full of coupons she’d clipped and categorized. But when the labor dispute hit, she didn’t want to cross picket lines, so she tried Trader Joe’s and got hooked.

"It’s got a great atmosphere. Some of the people who work here are very entertaining," she says. "There’s a fellow who sings in the place where he passes out samples. I just feel very much like it’s a neighborhood place."

Robert Hermanns, who directs USC’s Food Industry Management Program, says that during the labor dispute, a lot of shoppers looked for a new place to buy groceries, and never returned in full force to the old ones.

"They discovered Trader Joe’s. They discovered Costco. They discovered Stater Bros, Bristol Farms, and a number of independents," says Hermanns.

Hermanns says the “Big Three” lost a chunk of the market, and now they’re up against national powerhouses Wal-Mart and Target. Both now sell groceries in their stores. And about four years ago, British-based Tesco — the world’s third biggest grocery seller — jumped into the fierce Southern California market.

Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores are smaller than traditional supermarkets. Their fare targets people who want to eat healthy but are too busy to spend a lot of time shopping and cooking. One of them is Vivian Bowers, who likes the pre-packaged, ready-to-eat meals that crowd the Fresh & Easy shelves.

"Either you can put it in a microwave or oven, it’s in individual or usually portions for two people, perfect for my husband and I. The vegetables, a lot of them are pre-washed and ready to go," she says.

Fresh & Easy CEO Tim Mason recently went to Town Hall Los Angeles to talk about wooing Southland shoppers, something he says isn’t easy.

"I think the Southern California consumer is the trendsetter, the earlier adopter, is looking for the new thing, the healthier thing, looking for value for sure," he told KPCC in an interview after his speech.

He said retailers have to study what sells and what doesn’t, and make the changes shoppers want.

"When we change things to be more Fresh & Easy, to be unique, to be healthier, they loved it," Mason explained. "When we changed things to be more like other supermarkets and took something out that was Fresh & Easy to do it, they would get very cross with us. [They'd say] 'Don’t do that. We don’t need another supermarket. What we love about you is that you’re different.'"

Mason also emphasized his company's willingness to open stores where other supermarkets aren’t. There's a market in Compton. The Fresh & Easy where Bowers shops is in South L.A. at Central Avenue and Adams Boulevard. She stopped in with her father, Horace, who founded the dry cleaning business next door in the 1960s.

"Let me tell you something, the store that was here before, most of the food was expired. The food was horrible," Bowers remembered, then quickly focused on the present. "It’s a joy, and I see the customers that I know are my customers at the cleaners that are thrilled."

And she said those customers are tough, just like she is.

"I watch prices. I watch calories. I watch expiration dates. I want the best for my dollar, and I feel I get it here," she said.

A lot of shoppers have found stores where they can get the best for their dollar, and they aren’t Ralphs, Vons or Albertsons.

This is the first part of a five-part series. For months, Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons have been chipping away at a new contract with the union for grocery store workers. Sometimes, the talks get nasty enough to raise the specter of the “Big Three” labor dispute of 2003, when 70,000 grocery store workers stopped working for four months. In the end, the workers kept jobs but lost pay. The stores won a new pay scale but lost customers. Eight years later, a repeat of that dispute could be a disaster for the supermarkets and their workers. We’ll look at why this week.