October 22, 2017

The middle class breadline?

Posted on 17. Apr, 2013 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

I had a feeling of déjà vu the other day as I pushed my shopping cart through the cavernous maze of Costco. Every time I enter this pantheon of discount bulk foods I’m drawn back in time to countries I lived in like the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago which lies 25 miles off the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea.

Shopping in the islands was an experience. There were no Safeway’s, Albertsons or Piggly Wiggly’s. Small grocery stores and specialty markets with high prices were the rule. If we wanted more variety and a sashay down aisles wide as the interstate we had to fly to Miami. Munich, Germany was much the same way, and while the stores were bigger the aisles were smaller. Go figure it.

I suspect that the experience of American supermarket shopping with its piped in music and spacious surroundings never translated well to the Europeans who had limited time to shop after work, used public transportation to and from the market AND had a tradition of buying fresh food every day.

Plus, there were the outdoor markets offering every imaginable food choice from produce to meats to freshly baked bread. In Munich, there was the ‘Viktuelienmarkt’ (from the Latin word, victualia meaning provisions) which was located just a few blocks from the physical center of town easily accessible by the tram and not far from an underground station.

Back to Costco. I have a few pet peeves about this wondrous concept, the biggest is I never know with absolute certainty where anything IS except for the frozen food lockers, the produce section and the meat counter and maybe the OTC medicines, the electronic/computer products and the Eyeglass and Photofinishing counters as well as the wine racks. OK, maybe there are not THAT many things that are moved around like peas in a shell game, but it seems that way every time I can’t find a canned good or paper product.

Costco could take a lesson from Sam’s Club, their venerable competitor just down the street. Sam’s puts up the names of categories on signs high above the aisles so people can navigate without fear of taking a wrong turn and ending up in Zanzibar without a sextant. I’m a member of both not because of the different product assortments or the lower prices on cat food (Sam’s is best) but because I can get a free lunch in two places any time I want!

Actually that’s not true, but I suspect it might be for some people. This week I did some undercover research. I pretended to shop at both Costco and Sam’s but really observed the eating habits of my fellow shoppers. Both stores offer what I call the middle class breadline.

This takes the form of portable food sample carts with steam tables or tabletop skillets that cook exotic items and slingshot the aromas with an irresistible ‘come taste me’ invitation into every nook and cranny of the store. Beware the shopper who just came in to pick up his vacation photos or have his eyeglass rims tightened, he will be tempted.

Costco and Sam’s are the modern day equivalent of Shéhérazade who mesmerized the Persian King with stories that lasted 1001 nights. The difference is they do it at lunchtime with food, and so well that it’s not unusual to see a whole family huddled around a three bean green chili salad or mini-pizza cart like baby sparrows in a nest waiting for the next morsel from mama bird.

I know the stores do this to sell more food, but some of my friends are suspicious. They think this might be a secret Obama Administration plot to reduce the number of food stamp recipients and help out the working poor by keeping them off the Government’s poverty statistics. All I know is that these people are always blocking the aisles making it much more difficult for me to get lost. Enough already!

- Editor

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