Strike causes business boon in smaller markets

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Many shoppers are reluctant to cross picket lines and are patronizing ‘mom-and-pop’ stores. Ralphs declines to discuss the effect on sales.

By Carolanne Sudderth/Special to The Malibu Times

For those familiar with late-night shopping, it might as well have been midnight at the Malibu Colony Ralphs. Although spaces in the rest of the Colony parking lot are at a premium, the portion of the lot in front of the market has been eerily empty.

Inside the market, most of the aisles are deserted; three or four people cruise behind their shopping carts. Lines at the few check-out counters that are open are no more than two deep.

The collective bargaining agreement with the three major chains expired on Oct. 5. Employees walked out Oct. 1 when a contract presented by Safeway Inc. proposed major cuts in their health insurance.

The supermarket strike has

hit Southern California hard. Consumers who are often forced to drive an extra mile or two to avoid crossing a picket line are not the only ones affected-but not everyone is suffering.

Smaller markets are suddenly finding their sales soaring. The strike has made consumers aware of the smaller mom-and-pops that might otherwise have escaped their notice.

Sales are on the high road at HOWS Trancas Market, despite its remote location at the northernmost tip of Malibu. Assistant Manager Eric Sustin estimates that sales have doubled.

“It’s almost like summer,” he said. “This is normally our downtime. We have extra help to make sure that everything goes smoothly. Customers are extremely happy that we’re here for them.”

The one tricky spot, he added, is staying stocked.

Signs on cash registers assure customers that they are a union shop-no scab labor-and a special agreement allows them to stay open. Small neighborhood markets operate under a different union contract.

In Santa Monica, business is booming at Bob’s, a full-service neighborhood market on Ocean Park Boulevard that has been in business since 1979. Owner Bob Rosenbloom estimates that business has doubled, bringing with it a few problems of its own. The sudden upsurge in sales has called for stocking additional supplies.

“We’ve had to buy some additional shopping carts, and obviously, we’ve increased our staff, but basically, we’re able to handle it,” he said.

Picket sign over his shoulder, Ralphs Shop Steward Donald Narvaz said that the union would be happy to renew the old contract. However, the new contract presented by Safeway Inc. would cut benefits in half, he said. And when Safeway Inc. stood adamant, the other markets stood with them, and employees of all three markets walked.

Not only would employees have to foot $5 a week toward their health insurance ($15 for families of three or more), but vision and dental coverage would be eliminated. Narvaz said that employees fully expect that cost to rise to $95 within three years.

“And for retirees, they don’t want to give benefits,” Narvaz said.

He’s aware that the strike has had an effect on both parties.

“They’re throwing away more than what they sell,” he said.

In the meantime, employees are working picket lines without paychecks. Asked if they’re feeling the pinch, Narvaz responded affirmatively. “Yes, quite a bit. But we have to struggle to [maintain our rights.]”

The strike is also inducing customers to try markets they may not have otherwise sought out, such as PC Greens Natural Foods on Pacific Coast Highway near Carbon Canyon. “It has allowed some customers who didn’t frequent our store in the past to try a healthy, new lifestyle,” owner Mike Osterman said.

An 11-year veteran of the Malibu community, PC Greens is locally owned and operated. Its 35 employees are nonunion, and business is up 25 percent, Osterman said.

If sales at so many smaller markets are up, it stands to reason that sales at the Big Three would be down.

Ralphs officials admitted their contributions to local food banks have increased, but declined to address the effect on their sales.

“I will tell you that the strike and the picketers have greatly inconvenienced our customers,” said Terry O’Neil, Ralphs’ public relations director. “However, during the last three days, sales have picked up.”

Picketers are losing their enthusiasm, he said, “and we believe that shoppers are just tired of being inconvenienced and having to drive the extra mile to do their shopping, and they’re coming back to their neighborhood Ralphs.”

He anticipates it will be a long while before an agreement is reached. “We’re as far apart today as we were when the union made the decision to call a strike. There has been no discussion,” O’Neil said.

He alleged that union picketers may be shooting themselves in the foot by enhancing the market for mom-and-pop food merchants. “More and more little markets are opening in Southern California and taking business away from the higher cost union-ized markets.”

“Me-Too” contracts allow smaller unionized markets to stay in business, O’Neil said. Those markets agreed to stay on the sidelines and remain neutral while the three big chains negotiated with the seven Southern California unions, and accept whatever would come out of the negotiations.

Typically, that’s the smaller companies that couldn’t afford a labor dispute.

“But that happens each contract,” O’Neil said. “Several of the smaller companies just decide to stay on the sidelines.”

In the meantime, Ralphs is trying to lure customers back with special deals and coupons for free pumpkins, heads of lettuce and jars of mayonnaise-with a minimum purchase.