Few businesses are as entrenched in the daily lives of local people as the grocery store. Aside from the obvious—buying products on which we subsist—grocery stores keep shoppers coming back in ways unheard of five, 10, 15 years ago by offering a catalog of services to shoppers.
Grocery stores have come full circle in many ways, because so many supermarkets now offer general merchandise along with food items. But the homey general store aspect now also comes with an advanced degree of knowledge and expertise.
Today’s consumers not only buy food to keep them and their families alive, but they also want expert advice from the people selling them the food. They want to know what is in season, how to choose the right produce and how to best prepare it.
They want to know the difference between good fat and bad fat, whole and processed foods, to know what is nutritious, what is best avoided and how to treat themselves once in a while.
They want suggestions for quick and easy meals, for holiday dinners, for game day recipes, for the right wine to serve.
These aren’t difficult questions, but people need the instruction and the help. They don’t want to be preached to, but they also don’t want to feel abandoned in the wilderness of overwhelming choices. This is particularly important with an aging population that is changing eating habits to help ward off or control chronic diseases.
Today’s consumers also attend to an array of other responsibilities at the grocery store. They pay their bills or send money to relatives.
They may get a checkup or flu shot or pick up a prescription.
Maybe they deposit a check or withdraw money from an in-store bank.
Maybe they pick up their dry cleaning.
Maybe shoppers pick up some freshly made tortillas, grab lunch at the deli or sit down at an in-store eatery.
People go to grocery stores to do much more than shop. There are intangibles beyond the products and services inside the brick and mortar of a grocery store.
Maybe they buy Girl Scout cookies or pick up a plate from a church barbecue on the way to the car.
Maybe their children get ID cards with their fingerprints on them and visit with local law enforcement officers there or climb on a fire truck in the parking lot.
Maybe they visit with their elected representatives.
They see their neighbors there and catch up on happenings in town. There may be an event at the store itself to benefit a local family or nonprofit group.
Local supermarkets are gathering places, community spaces—integral parts of daily life. In community stores, employees know people by name and ask about their families, their pets, their teams.
Community grocery stores are the last stop before impending disasters like ice storms or hurricanes and usually are the first businesses to reopen afterward. They in fact rush to open to help others cope.
But being so vital to the local community also makes grocery stores vulnerable.
It was the intangibles, like service, love and compassion that you couldn’t help but think about that morning of Jan. 8, a typical, sunny Saturday in Tucson. On that day, a supermarket became center stage for a tragic national story that has the potential to change the way Americans talk to and disagree with one another.
What can a supermarket operator do to prepare for such an event?
But Safeway’s response has been a study in grace and calm. The store of course closed so the investigation could be completed. Safeway sent grief counselors to comfort people—employees, customers, the community—and to help them begin to heal.
KVOA in Arizona reported that 31 employees of the 88 who work at the Safeway were at the store that day. Safeway, in addition to offering them grief counseling, also held meetings to allow employees to talk about what they were feeling.
Dan Valenzuela, Safeway’s division president, said in a statement, “As a community, we have tried to find ways to help where we can and to stand together.”
Employees were cleaning up the store and getting ready to open again on the Friday following the tragedy. They held a brief memorial, too.
These are the people who will lead a wounded community out of tragedy and toward normalcy. They won’t give speeches or bring politics into it. They won’t call for change or make promises. They won’t whine. They won’t look for ways to profit or people to blame.
They will be at work, going about their ordinary lives attending to the people who need them. And they will go about the extraordinary business of being completely entrenched in community life.