"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Grocery shopping and our changing town

The ethanol plant is up and running again and there's talk that the Appleton prison will reopen. It's nice to see this pattern of the dead coming back to life. But I don't think we'll be seeing the Coborn's grocery store opening its doors again.
I think most of us were perplexed by the closing of Coborn's because it seemed like a place so buzzing with life. It might have been the most vital "people" place in Stevens County, and any tie (stalemate) with Willie's would have been broken by the fact it was open 24 hours a day.
It might have seemed odd to see people buying routine grocery items at some ungodly hour. But people did it. I had a co-worker who said you could feel comfortable going to Coborn's in your pajamas, the point being that the store was a haven for the "common" person.
The new Willie's store overwhelmed me when it opened its doors. A different co-worker at that time said the new Willie's was "too much for me."
The new Willie's Super Valu was built because of commercial pressures, of course. Just like certain commercial pressures came along and eliminated Coborn's.
Life goes on.
Writing a post about grocery shopping makes one feel quite Andy Rooney-ish.
"Have you ever noticed. . ." etc.
One can argue that grocery stores are the last real bastion of "people" activity in our rural small towns. Towns that not that long ago were buzzing with their own high schools, sports teams and the like have gotten hollowed out. I'm told there's a big "for sale" sign in front of the Alberta school building. I'm told the Donnelly restaurant has closed.
Our family used to visit the Cyrus restaurant for Sunday afternoon dining but that, too, went out of business.
Downtown Morris was such a popular place when I was a kid, you had to shove change into parking meters to park there. We're into quite different times now.
The "people" activity may have diminished but we all still have to eat. Willie's arguably has a monopoly now or a quasi-monopoly, so it's a place where you can still bump into your neighbors.
Grocery stores are still places that employ a number of people who meet the public. But that may change.
Grocery stores everywhere are taking a hard look at their carry-out services, according to a friend of mine who used to work at Coborn's. People can handle their own groceries with the use of carts if needed, and carry-out could be on an on-request basis. Isn't this the way Wal-Mart does it?
If you can't stay competitive with Wal-Mart in this day and age, you're in trouble.
Scanners have made the job of checkout clerks easier.
"You mean there was a time when scanners didn't exist?"
Well, yes.
As with all technology, initially the job is made easier for employees until eventually the employees aren't needed at all. This is the definite spectre that awaits grocery store checkout clerks.
Will they all be able to find something new to do? Good question.
How much further will small town erosion continue before society starts to feel some really bad effects?
When our society no longer celebrates "people" i.e. kids and families, what fate then awaits us?
Grocery stores are probably a barometer for seeing how our small towns are hanging in there, or not.
Does Willie's even need to spend money to advertise? Is there any other store like it in the immediate area? So is the closest real competition Alexandria?
Couldn't you argue that the people who are so determined to shop in Alexandria that they'd buy groceries there, wouldn't be influenced by advertising anyway?
I would like to tell Paul Martin of Willie's that instead of all that advertising and promotion, just push "everyday low prices" and skip sending out all that paper.
I have dabbled only a few times in following coupons, promotions and the like, and always come away resigned about it. My philosophy is to just go to the store and get what I need. Promotions just get me to buy things I don't need, an excess quantity of something I might want, or brands or varieties of something that I might not prefer.
I really think it's counterproductive. But it seems I'm quite in the minority on this.
Wal-Mart has pioneered lots of things, one of them being "everyday low prices." I subscribe wholeheartedly to this.
I have mixed thoughts about the sell-by dates on everything in a grocery store. (Here we go in the Rooney-ish tone.)
Obviously there needs to be a mechanism ensuring that stores don't sell stale or dangerously old items. But the sell-by system encourages, I think, too many people to paw through items to find the freshest. Thus I think a lot of product gets thrown away, which I think is unconscionable.
We all have to guard against impulse purchases in grocery stores but that's tough. I think we all resolve on occasion to simply compile a strict shopping list and resist all else. Until we see some snack we'd really like.
And we end up forgetting to get the milk anyway.
We used to be able to dash to Coborn's at 2 a.m. and get it.
I once read that grocery stores tend to put their most frivolous or non-necessary items by the entry because you're more likely to buy them at the start of your shopping trip, than when your cart is nearly full toward the end. I'm not sure Willie's subscribes to that model though.
I sometimes don't like those fund-raising tables at the entry of Willie's. I don't like it when the people at those tables accost you. They could just sit behind their signs, stay quiet and let me decide. Let me make one exception and that's Girl Scout Cookies!
I also don't like those stands with free samples. I feel as though my privacy is being intruded upon.
What size cart should you choose when entering a grocery store? You have full-size carts, mini-carts and baskets, plus those contraptions in which little kids can sit.
It shouldn't bother me, but I'm always scared of taking a full-size cart when I might not need one. So I often take a smaller one and fill it to capacity and then some. Or I'll take a basket and then have to carry some stuff with my other arm.
Sometimes I take a basket because I want to discipline myself to not buy too much. That often doesn't work.
I feel sorry for the store employees who have to ask "paper or plastic?" all day. There has got to be a better way. But hey, nowadays you're supposed to be thankful just to have a job, right? Isn't that the mantra?
Willie Martin might have been the first adult I became familiar with in this community. I think JFK was president at the time. Morris was brimming with kids and families and we needed more than one public elementary school in town.
Willie would tease me in a friendly way naturally about what cereal boxtops I was looking for. I might be after a boxtop that could be redeemed for a plastic submarine, for example.
I'm befuddled why it's necessary to have so many different kinds of breakfast cereal. Wouldn't three or four basic kinds suffice?
Willie was the consummate people person and small town patriarch who, while I'm sure he sought profit, wasn't some corporate automaton who knelt at the altar of some behemoth company begging for mercy.
I'm sure any grocery store employee will tell you that fender-bumper accidents in the parking lot are common. I once told a local insurance agent that grocery stores should be pressured to paint their parking spots further apart. But this would force people to park further away, and who wants to walk? Ah, humanity.
In the old days you'd get Green Stamps or Gold Bond stamps handed to you at the checkout. If people had redeemed virtually all of those stamps, those companies would have gone broke. They made money because of the stamps that got discarded, so you could say it was kind of an ethically-challenged system. It eventually died.
When I was a kid, Willie's was a Red Owl store and not Super Valu. There were two major stores in Morris then, Juergensen's Super Valu being the other, and they seemed equally viable. Juergensen's was where the Aaron Carlson business is today. It had "partial carry" service which meant you drove your car to the front and had your sacks put in the car there.
I believe the Juergensen bakery actually had an advantage over Willie's.
That was then, this is now. The Juergensen's store had two more incarnations after the Juergensen name departed, and Morris legend has it that a main street improvement project forced Mitch's Food Pride out of business at that location.
People my age have fond memories of the grocery experience there. Remember the snack counter and those terrific soft ice cream cones?
Neighborhood grocery stores were a big part of the town's fabric when I was a kid. I suppose the equivalent today is convenience stores although those are so sterile by comparison. They have clerks with ID cards hanging around their necks and there's a sign in front telling robbers that it isn't worth the trouble trying to rob the place.
In the old days you had some stern parental type welcoming kids as they streamed in, making sure they didn't get too squirrelly in their behavior as they sought out popsicles, baseball cards and the like.
Baseball cards were a nickel a pack.
At the Dairy Queen along East 7th Street, you could buy a nickel-size cone or the "large" size: a dime. The Stark's neighborhood grocery store (later Budig's) was along that street too, down the hill from our old, now-abandoned (and crumbling) elementary school. Of course, back then it wasn't just an elementary school, it was the high school, with "East Elementary" attached.
Longfellow Elementary, where I attended grades 1-3 (and was informed of the JFK assassination) was in west Morris.
I attended grades 4-9 at the east Morris building. Us boomer kids would literally run down the hill on Columbia Avenue during break time to visit Stark's Grocery to maybe get a candy bar or small sack of chips. You might say it was a little dangerous as we approached and crossed East 7th Street.
There was a time when East 7th was the main entry to Morris from the east, before the highway that is located in front of Pamida. Crossing at East 7th and Columbia, with momentum from going downhill, would prompt alarm bells today. But people didn't worry as much then.
It was a culture that celebrated kids and families with all the risks attendant.
Today we're so risk-averse we're not even having kids anymore.
I'm not sure this is the way God intended it.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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