Going To Market

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Attention, shoppers: The modern grocery store is bigger and better than ever, offering a dizzying array of products and services. Want to know how your local market stacks up against the competition?

Nicole Baxter of Elk Grove mostly shops at her favorite store, Bel Air. But she goes to Wal-Mart for the kids’ cereal, to Target for their energy bars and to Costco for fresh sliced deli turkey, which she buys in bulk and freezes.

Remember the old days, when our mothers shopped at only one store?

Things have changed.

For better or for worse, today’s shoppers have a dizzying array of choices when they go out for groceries&emdash;which, experts say, is why traditional supermarkets are scrambling to be all things to all people.

Call it, if you will, an identity crisis.

The traditional supermarkets are trying to compete with Costco’s prices and with Whole Foods’ produce, which is why you see stores like Safeway with their ‘lifestyle stores’ bringing in more prepared foods, organic produce and an olive bar, says Peter Sealey, a Bay Area retail consultant.
You see the same kinds of changes under way at Raley’s and Bel Air, whose newer stores are glamorized versions of their former selves, with snazzy dcor, an expanded selection of take-home meals and natural products, artisanal cheeses and other niceties that today’s demanding shoppers have come to expect.

Phil Lempert, a Southern California industry consultant known as the supermarket guru, expects traditional supermarkets to continue moving in that direction.

I think we’re going to see a lot of traditional stores changing their product mix, shifting to more freshly prepared foods and creating more of an exciting shopping experience, says Lempert, who has written several books, including Being the Shopper and Phil Lempert’s Shopping & Value Guide. To succeed in today’s highly competitive market, he notes, traditional markets will have to provide a shopping experience that is a lot stronger and a lot smarter.

They also will need to develop a relationship with shoppers, Lempert says, pointing to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market and Costco as examples of stores that have already mastered the art. Those stores also celebrate food, he adds. I think that’s why they’re doing so well.

Traditional and specialty markets alike would be well-advised to keep pushing the ready-to-eat solutions, says Sealey, noting that today’s consumer spends an average of 17 minutes a day preparing food.

In the mid-’60s, people spent an average of 2 hours and 11 minutes cooking a day, he says. But it’s a different world. We don’t prepare food anymore, and supermarkets have to adapt to that reality.

So just how well have local markets adapted to that reality&emdash;and how do they stack up as places to shop? In the pages that follow, I take a look at our region’s seven major players&emdash;Bel Air, Raley’s, Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Nugget Markets, Trader Joe’s and Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op&emdash;and compare prices there and at some of the big-box discount stores.

RATING THE SUPERMARKETS

When Sacramento magazine set out to look at the seven major supermarket players in the Sacramento region, the magazine’s editors enlisted me to act as a secret shopper, visiting one store from each of the chains (Bel Air, Nugget Markets, Raley’s, Trader Joe’s and Safeway) as well as the only Whole Foods Market in town and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Shopping undercover, I evaluated each store in terms of service, pricing and ambiance. Here’s my report.

>> RALEY’S, 25025 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom

Feeling a little like Dorothy at the gates of Oz&emdash;small and meek&emdash;I enter this mammoth new Raley’s and am immediately approached by a perky clerk who chirps, Do you have your shopping list ready? As I wander along the wide, rambling aisles, more smiling clerks wait around every corner, at the deli, in the wine department, over in produce and at the seafood counter. The store is so quiet (it’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday) that I end up playing the starring role of customer of the day, though it’s the last thing I want: I’m trying to look inconspicuous, after all, and take a few notes.

Ambiance: A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll: a mix of down-home friendliness and shiny, modern glossiness. (Check out those new floors.)

Amenities:
Java City Cafe, supervised Play Care (for kids ages 2–8), pharmacy, self-checkout lanes, Tri Counties Bank branch, wine tastings

Also noted:
The self-serve Sizzling Wok (when was the last time you spotted a Chinese buffet in a grocery store?); salad bar; big pottery display near checkout stand; fun new potpourri of panini and wrap sandwiches; lavish selection of organic chocolate bars, including my favorite, Terra Nostra Raisins & Pecans.

Pricing:
Everyday low pricing; e-coupons and e-mail updates about specials available
Service (deli, produce, meat/seafood, wine, checkout): If you want to play Queen for a Day, just visit this Raley’s and let them roll out the red carpet. I get the star treatment at every turn, from the deli area (where a clerk chases me down just to hand me a sample of artichoke-Parmesan spread on a little square of sourdough) to the wine department, where a manager profusely apologizes for being out of Rombauer Chardonnay, then spends about 15 minutes reciting a list of other wines I might consider. And I’m blown away at the checkout counter, where a young bagger offers careful, handwritten directions when I announce I don’t know my way back to the freeway.

The verdict: Without losing an ounce of its eager-beaver friendliness, a mainstream market maintains its competitive edge by going a little upscale.

>> NUGGET MARKETS, 771 Pleasant Grove Blvd., Roseville

The new Roseville Nugget is so take-your-breath-away grand that it almost makes me swoon. Between the sheer size and scope of the place and those towering statues of women hoisting baskets over their heads, it all seems a bit formidable at first. But when I walk in and practically bump smack dab into the gelato bar, all is right with the world. That’s the thing about Nugget: No matter what you want, you’ll likely find it here, where conventional and specialty products dance cheek to cheek. And even if you get lost wandering down those long, looooong aisles, you always can gravitate to the perimeter and pamper yourself with a pick-me-up at the bakery.

Ambiance: Stylish, upscale and as bountiful as bountiful gets

Amenities: Indoor/outdoor eating areas, healthy living resource center
Also noted: Spectacular coffee and juice bar; artisanal pizza by the slice; picture-perfect produce displays; sense of humor in the wine department (one sign reads Renegade Reds); elaborate Asian foods counter; a profusion of prepared foods

Pricing: STOP signs posted to indicate price cuts

Service (deli, produce, meat/seafood, wine, checkout): There’s an art to good service, and Nugget’s got it nailed; employees never hover but are on the spot when needed. In the produce section, I’m impressed that such a young employee actually knows a thing or two about pears. (He recommends the red D’Anjou for baking because it’s firmer and can probably take the heat without turning to mush.) And the cherry on top: Nugget is the only store on my hit list that carries the elusive Rombauer Chardonnay (only in half-bottles, but so what?). This is big.

The verdict: With its triple threat of service, selection and style, a star is born.

>> BEL AIR, 3250 Arena Blvd., Sacramento

A friend tells me Bel Air is the upscale version of Raley’s, and I guess I see what she means: The exterior is sleeker, and there’s distinctive drop lighting throughout the store. Otherwise, though, it seems a lot like the next-generation Raley’s stores that recently have rolled out, with similar amenities (Play Care stations, Java City cafes, etc.), similarly expanded selections (such as a cheese counter with every imaginable variety, from manchego to mascarpone) and the company’s trademark emphasis on service. My experience here is almost a carbon copy of my visit to Raley’s in Folsom: Shiny, happy clerks in a shiny, new store.

Ambiance: Quasi-elegant and a bit impenetrable: At 68,487 square feet, getting to know this store could take a while.

Amenities:
Java City Cafe, supervised Play Care (for kids ages 2–8), pharmacy, self-checkout lanes, postal center, Tri Counties Bank branch, wine tastings

Also noted: Meticulous signage in each department, subdividing the Merlots from the Cabs and the brie from the cheddar; dandelion greens, mustard greens and other unusual finds in the produce department; antipasto bar; cool sushi station

Pricing:
Everyday low pricing; e-coupons and e-mail updates about specials available
Service (deli, produce, meat/seafood, wine, checkout): Superior all around. In produce, I get a mini-lesson on the melon drop, which sounds like a martini but is actually a small, seedless watermelon; in the meat department, I get a tip on an upcoming tri-tip special. But it’s the clerk who searches for the Rombauer Chardonnay who really impresses me, checking and rechecking the shelves before going to the back of the store on a search mission, returning empty-handed. The kicker: After he apologizes umpteen times, I find out he’s not even the official wine guy.

The verdict: Like its sister store, Raley’s, Bel Air keeps a stronghold in the supermarket sweepstakes by mixing down-home friendliness with a sophisticated sheen.

 

>> TRADER JOE’S, 5000 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento

Part Jimmy Buffett, part Neil Young, Trader Joe’s has a tropical motif and the renegade spirit of an old hippie rock ‘n’ roller. It’s the nongrocery shopper’s grocery store, with unconventional products in an unconventional setting, and this particular store is even more far-out than most, with so many fragrant flowers and palm trees that for a minute I think I’m on Fantasy Island. And the food. Ah, the food: pineapple salsa and chipotle chicken skewers and triple-berry muffins and&emdash;let’s not forget&emdash;Two-Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw wine for $1.99). In brief: Trader Joe’s makes shopping fun even for those who hate shopping.

Ambiance: Funky and free-spirited, like being on a tropical island&emdash;except for those darned shopping cart traffic jams.

Amenities: No Starbucks and no ATM; TJ’s is too counterculture for that. But there are plenty of
colorful balloons at the checkout counter for kiddie shoppers.

Also noted:
Eclectic extravaganza of prepared foods; nuts, cheeses and wines galore; organic and trendy gourmet items; Joe’s Surf Shack offering free samples (today’s special: grilled chicken salad with orange vinaigrette); a frozen-foods section so popular, people fight for personal space; fabulous flowers; artsy greeting cards for 99 cents

Pricing: The ultimate nonsystem: just low prices across the board

Service (deli, produce, meat/seafood, wine, checkout): There’s no traditional deli or meat department here&emdash;remember, TJ’s is a nonconformist. But when I lament that I can’t find a single avocado&emdash;they’re sold four to a bag only&emdash;I get a sympathetic response from a kid in the produce department. Unfortunately, they only come in these bags of four, he confirms. But every so often there’s a loose one, and if I could find one, I’d give it to you. What a prince.

The verdict: The store dares to be different&emdash;and succeeds brilliantly.                

>> WHOLE FOODS MARKET, 4315 Arden Way, Sacramento

Like Madonna, Whole Foods is at once the best and the worst kind of seductress&emdash;it doesn’t know when to quit. From the oversized chocolate-covered strawberries that coo and call your name to the cheesy chilaquiles at the self-serve hot food bar, this big-on-organics store is either a foodie’s fondest dream or worst nightmare. (Hint: Don’t go there on a diet.) Though I find customer service spotty and logistics occasionally lacking&emdash;the Order Panini Here sign, for example, confuses both me and another customer (Where do I go for a regular sandwich? she inquires)&emdash;Whole Foods more than makes up for this by being the culinary thrill ride that it is.

Ambiance:
With its extravagant spillage of culinary cleavage, the word that comes to mind is rich.

Amenities: Indoor/outdoor eating areas, gourmet bakery, catering services, cooking classes at Salud! Cooking & Lifestyle School

Also noted: Where do I start? Ultra-hip coffee bar in the round; brick-oven pizza counter with a guy throwing dough; large selection of natural personal/body care items, vitamins and supplements; fun food samples everywhere; produce I’ve never seen (dinosaur kale?); chocolate bars with names like Black Pearl and Oaxaca; but mostly, the Big Parade of prepared foods&emdash;I want it all.

Pricing:
No special system, though in fairness, I must add that I stumbled upon some surprisingly good deals at a store known for being pricey. Their 2.5-gallon jug of 365 spring water (the house brand) is an everyday value at $2.69&emdash;far less than the $3-plus I paid in most stores for Arrowhead water, same size.

Service (deli, produce, meat/seafood, wine, checkout): Polite and accommodating, although it takes a little while to find help in the produce department. I’m especially impressed by the guy at the meat counter, who actually encourages me to spend less by choosing blue-cheese burgers ($5.49/lb.) over beef on a stick for satay ($8.99/lb.).

The verdict: By emphasizing organics, gourmet items and prepared foods in a visually alluring setting, Whole Foods is positioned to swallow a big piece of the supermarket pie. But first it might need to get rid of its nickname: Whole Paycheck.

 

SAFEWAY, 1814 19th St., Sacramento

Like a town square in the middle of a city, the Safeway at 19th and S streets&emdash;yes, the one with the big chrome horse out front&emdash;sits regally in a small shopping complex that also features a Peet’s coffeehouse (which, to my way of thinking, adds astronomically to its allure). And it feels like a city supermarket, too, busy and bustling even at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. As I careen around the aisles, I feel invisible and anonymous, especially in the produce department, where two employees are so locked in conversation that they fail to notice me as I hover helplessly nearby. But I get such great service at the seafood counter that it salvages what seems at first to be an impersonal, but efficient, shopping experience.

Ambiance: Urban and buzzing with energy, like Grand Central Station

Amenities: Starbucks cafe, pharmacy, U.S. Bank branch

Also noted: The olive orchard olive bar, where an array of Greek olives shares table space with the Italians; lovely, large floral department featuring gift baskets and shiny Mylar balloons; the inviting, Old World market look of the produce department

Pricing: Safeway Club Card (i.e., only cardholders get the sale price, but getting a card is free&emdash;just fill out a form)

Service: A 50–50 proposition: While I’m ignored by the produce people and wait for what seems like forever in the wine department, the seafood lady saves the day. With infinite patience, she provides intricate instructions on preparing yellowfin tuna, from the olive oil/butter baste to which seasonings to use. (Maybe a little garlic powder, lemon pepper . . . dill is nice. Some people like to use Dijon mustard.) She even reminds me to thaw the fish halfway before grilling it, suggesting 5 minutes on each side should do the trick.

The verdict: An old war horse gets upgraded with a modern look and expanded selection, but customer service could use some tweaking.                                                

SACRAMENTO NATURAL FOODS CO-OP, 1900 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento

I’m feeling a bit schizophrenic: After fighting for a parking space, I enter the co-op and instantly feel embraced by the gentle spirit of 1960s hippiedom. With its absolute commitment to natural products, not to mention local farmers, the place feels as genuine as a well-worn pair of Birkenstocks. But don’t get the wrong idea: Though there’s a peaceful, easy feeling about the co-op, clearly a lot of hard work is going on here. Just check out the remarkably well-organized lineup of bulk food bins against the back wall, the artistically arranged produce displays and the neatly stocked grab and go case with healthful takeout.

Ambiance:
Earthy, bohemian vibe, befitting its back-to-nature stance

Amenities: All-organic (and mostly locally grown) produce; deli/cafe with indoor/outdoor seating; cooking classes, health and well-being seminars, and a variety of community programs offered at the adjacent Community Learning Center

Also noted:
Enormous bulk dried herb and spice collection, where oddball items like bladder wrack share space with the common curry; fun salads in the deli, such as kung pao tofu and cabbage ramen; bulk foods with such irresistible names as Zen Party Mix and Glad Corn; extensive personal/body care and vitamin/herb/supplements sections

Pricing: Special 5 percent discounts for co-op owners (members)

Service (deli, produce, meat/seafood, wine, checkout): Here, nobody’s in your face, but they are there when you need them. As I endlessly ponder the salads at the deli counter, the clerk remains cheery and patient, offering several samples and never rushing me. Over in produce, where I inquire about fava beans, a helpful young man goes to the back of the store to fetch a guide. Reading aloud, he shares, Fava beans are also called ‘broad beans’&emdash;did you know that?

The verdict: While other markets try to be all things to all people, the co-op inspires continued consumer confidence by staying true to the niche it carved more than 30 years ago.