Grocery shoppers get their groove on at big sneak peak

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK, While Hit Machine supplies the tunes, Southeast shoppers last week check out the new addition to the neighborhood. Many observed, “I can’t wait to walk to the grocery store.”

I'm not one to turn down a party invitation - or a bargain. I know I'm not alone, because last week's pre-opening celebration at the new Save-a-Lot store (6828 S.E. Foster Road) was very well-attended.

Promotions for the 'sneak peak' event promised 'extensive product sampling,' not to mention free gift bags for the first 300 guests and a chance to rub shoulders with 'local dignitaries.'

I've never been to a party in a grocery store before. I've also never crossed a picket line to get to a party, until now.

Representatives of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union stand on the sidewalk, protesting the nonunion store. But across the wide parking lot, the grocery outlet is crowded with folks from the neighborhood.

The Save-a-Lot chain is new to Portland (a second store opened at 6100 S.E. King Road in Milwaukie), with the majority of stores located in central and southern California.

It operates on what the industry terms an 'extreme value, limited assortment' model. This means, explains company representative Bob Dianora, that by offering less selection in a no-frills environment, Save-a-Lot can sell groceries for very low prices.

The chain also produces many of its own products. Boxes of store-brand canned corn, vegetable oil and laundry detergent are stacked tidily; there are no shelves. The proprietary packaging is colorful and eye-catching, not generic-looking, and some products are named after employees.

Dianora is Save-a-Lot's vice president of corporate retail operations, and he also has a line of frozen pizzas with his name on them.

Dianora proudly shows me around the store. He explains why they locate fruits and vegetables up front - to give customers a first impression of freshness - as the band plays a medley of hits by Prince.

Like most parties, this one has music, here provided by an ensemble called Hit Machine. They're dressed in silly wigs and wacky sunglasses. They've never rocked a grocery store before, they tell me. Usually they play weddings and corporate events.

A diverse crowd wanders around, nibbling microwaved popcorn and chocolate ice cream out of sample cups.

The store isn't open for business, which is causing some confusion.

Greeter Tammy Mosserucker, stationed at the front door, has to keep telling eager shoppers that they can't roll out the shopping carts just yet. Still she says she's getting 'wonderful reactions.'

Publicist Allison Fisker adds that the thing she's heard most is, 'I can't wait to walk to the grocery store.'

The neighborhood has a lot of low-income, elderly and foreign-born residents. A lot of them don't have cars, and if you've ever tried to transport a week's worth of groceries by bus, you know it's an ordeal.

In a brief opening ceremony, Amanda Lowthian, a representative of Mayor Tom Potter's office, thanks the store for opening in this underserved location. (She must be the dignitary we were promised.)

She also thanks Save-a-Lot for donations to Loaves and Fishes Centers (the Meals-on-Wheels people) - the company has pledged $5 to the charity for each attendee who walks in the door tonight.

That was the main draw for seniors Vivian Dignan and Ann Geren, who I find appreciatively eyeing the dairy case.

Dignan plays the organ at the Belmont Center, a community center that also is home to Meals on Wheels, and she's very pleased with the store.

'I think it's beautiful,' she says. 'It's so nice and bright and the prices are so good and everything looks so clean.'

Hit Machine has just launched into its version of 'Dancing Queen.' It's too loud for Dignan's taste. 'It's a little bit noisy for old people. … You have to live with it though - it's the younger generation,' she tells me, 'including you!'

The band plays 'Sweet Home Alabama.' It plays 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll,' replacing the words 'rock 'n' roll' with 'Save-a-Lot.' And you really could save a lot here. There are boxes of mac and cheese for 99 cents, and whole packs of hot dogs for 48 cents.

Your kids might mutiny when you bring home Circus O's instead of Cheerios, or Mornin' Gems instead of Lucky Charms. And to get such low prices, you do have to give up certain amenities, like the aforementioned shelves, and free grocery bags.

Save-a-Lot charges 3, 5 and 10 cents a bag, encouraging customers to bring their own. I discover that the 'free gift bags' they are giving away aren't sacks full of party favors; they're just empty bags, although they are canvas rather than paper or plastic.

I bite a small piece of Dionara Pizza off a toothpick, receive a Save-a-Lot helium balloon, and watch people go through the motions of shopping.

They check prices, pick up cans and set them back down, and wander aimlessly up and down the aisles. They'll never save more than today, in a store where nothing is for sale.

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