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Archive for December, 2009

Several weeks ago I came across an article written by a distant acquaintance on the topic of dumpster diving.  The idea really sparked my interest and I went so far as to ask my husband what he thought about actually trying it.  He was not thrilled about doing the family grocery shopping after his bedtime and he was highly dubious that I’d actually eat the goods once he got them home.  He might be right about that.  The couple in the above story dumpster dive as a form of social protest.  As I understand their position, they are trying to fight the consumerist American culture in a small way.  I do not exactly share their passion for protesting that particular issue in that particular way.  I was, honestly, more interested in saving hundreds of dollars each month.  But I have been rolling around this question in my mind ever since:  Why is there so much food in the grocery store that ends up in the dumpster?  Why don’t these businesses plan better?  I have a few thoughts based solely on my own observation in three areas.

I am fairly confident that the main dumpster raided by my acquaintances is at a Trader Joe’s.  I have been an avid Trader Joe’s fan for some years and it remains one of my favorite stores.  I was in one only yesterday doing my monthly grocery run.   After years of shopping at several different Trader Joe’s in several states I have come to expect a small, clean, easy-to-navigate store.  The shelves are stocked with the food I love, the employees bend over backwards trying to help me, and I leave with several bags of delicious food at a pretty good value.  They always ask me, at the checkout stand, if I found everything I was looking for.  My answer is always, “Yes,” because their stores are so consistent in their offerings that I never even put something on my list that can’t be found there.

Last month I was thrilled when a new Trader Joe’s opened up close to my husband’s workplace–about half the distance from home as the one I’d been going to.  I rolled my family through the door early on a Monday morning just days after the grand opening to do my shopping.  The employees were still putting the finishing touches on everything and there were far more of them than customers that day.  I was pretty annoyed to find that they weren’t stocking any heavy cream.  And in the fruit and nut aisle the prices weren’t even up yet!  I had my new price book all ready to go so I could double-check the prices against the nearby Costco!  At the checkout the service was fine but the woman didn’t even ask me if I’d found everything I wanted and she didn’t give me a chance to gush about how excited I was about their holiday offerings.   It is only now occurring to me that the Trader Joe’s employee was probably totally fried from getting a new store ready to meet the exacting standards of loyal shoppers such as myself.  In fact, we saw her again yesterday and after saying hello she showed that she not only remembered seeing us last time but also remembered where we live and where my husband works.

So why can’t this top-notch store better plan its inventory so as to not fill a dumpster with broccoli at the end of the day?  Because they don’t know how often I’m going to shop there, or what I’m going to buy each time.  Sometimes I buy broccoli at Trader Joe’s; sometimes I don’t.  But they do know that someone like me has a more pleasant shopping experience when the broccoli spot is filled to overflowing when I stroll past.  And they had better keep everything else stocked to the brim as well lest I get annoyed at having to shop elsewhere for my heavy cream.

This should have been obvious to me from the start based on my own experience of dabbling in small business.  I have a small, home-based, inventory-dependent business.  It might seem obvious that I could make the most money in the shortest amount of time by stocking only the exact products my customers want.  But my customers just aren’t that consistent.  And when they call they want their stuff.  Only last night a customer called wanting something she’d never tried before.  I had it on hand.  She was glad.  That’s good customer service.  But the result is that I have much, much more product on hand than I sell in a given month.  Fortunately, my products have a very long shelf life.

Then there’s a local bakery where we shop two or three times each week.  Our baker, Georgie, works in a shop his grandfather founded 102 years ago.  It’s been in the same location almost the entire time it’s been open.  His shop is just around the corner from us–close enough that I’ve often been tempted to grab the baby monitor and run over there during naptime to get bread for dinner.  It took us a long time to figure out Georgie when we first moved here.  He’s open “8 to 8” except in the summer–which apparently extends into September.  And he’s not open while he’s out doing deliveries which is, I guess, mid-morning.  Ish.  And if you want to stop by mid-afternoon for a snack his door might be open but if he’s busy back in the kitchen you might as well forget about it, “Come back later!” he’ll shout.

He sells baguettes, round loaves, sub rolls, dinner rolls, and other seasonal items.  He also brings in some dessert-type products from other local bakers and every Saturday and Sunday he runs over to a Jewish baker and brings back a couple big bags of the best bagels we’ve ever had.  The baguettes are hot at 6:00 . . .  or so.  The round loaves can be sliced for you but only in the morning once they’re cooled.  If you need your bread at six and it’s not done yet he’ll substitute some sub rolls for you.  If you’re too late on Saturday and all the bagels are gone, oh well.  Come back tomorrow.  If you’re a regular customer he’ll make you wait at the back of the line while he takes care of the more high-maintenance folks who might have come in after you.  If he’s really busy he’ll toss you a brown bag and have you hop out to the kitchen to fetch your own darn bread.   You might call his store a “cafe” except that the word connotes something picturesque and his place has dingy brown walls, a green plastic patio table (which he hauls outside when the weather is nice) and a self-serve coffee urn.  I’m not sure if the coffee is complimentary or not.  His stuff doesn’t keep.  The baguettes and bagels aren’t very good even the very next day.  And he only takes cash.

So why do we shop with Georgie so much?  The biggest reason is that his bread is really, really good.  We wouldn’t go there if that were not the case.  It tastes wonderful and it doesn’t keep because there aren’t any preservatives in it–not even sugar.  It is also very inexpensive.  Even buying my yeast in bulk I can’t beat his prices by making my own bread.  But all the little things that would be totally unacceptable to me if I were at Trader Joe’s aren’t a problem at Georgie’s.  If I go at 6:00 looking for a baguette and he’s not quite ready I can just run back home and finish setting the table before hopping back.  It takes less than a minute to get there.  I’d send my three-year-old alone if she didn’t have to cross our street on the way.

When we stop in on a whim and come up short on cash he says, “No, problem, pay me tomorrow,” and hands us our bread anyway.  The kids drag us in there every chance they can because they know Georgie will give them, at the very least, a free cookie from under his counter.  They usually score a day-old dinner roll or some fresh dough to bake at home as well.  Once he gave my son an old basketball and my daughter a fluffy purse that only she could love.  If business is slow he’s usually sitting at his plastic table with some neighborhood old-timer and we hang out for awhile slaking our thirst for local (very local–as in, our block) history.  I’m pretty sure Georgie throws away very little–if any–of his wares at the end of the day.  His dumpster would not be a profitable dive.

I don’t know the answer here.  I will, for the time being, continue to shop at both Trader Joe’s–where everything is clean, orderly, well-stocked, and predictable–and Georgie’s–where, though we are firmly part of the “in-crowd” I am still figuring out how to do business.  But I never buy my bread at Trader Joe’s anymore.

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