4.11.2008

The devil you know

I recently became a responsible homeowner! The process was full of twists and turns, such as a 4-month delay in construction, but I am finally home. The place is great. Sorry for the lack of posts.

As part of my new status, I feel invested in not only my condo, but my neighborhood too. I have a sudden urge to support local businesses. Probably because if they win, I win. So I'm seeking out the local restaurants, drycleaners, nail salons, dive bars and flower shops.

But grocery shopping - well, that's different. I know my old Jewel so well I could fill my cart with my eyes closed. So I'll admit, I've been going back to the old store, in the old neighborhood. It's just a few minutes out of my way.

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People don't like change. Especially when something is good. But even when things are just okay, we typically prefer the devil we know. We sacrifice convenience or comfort or even excitement, in order to avoid change. We do crazy things, like continuing to use our old hairstylist in our old hometown, ten years after we left for college! Because letting a new person cut your hair - well, that's a huge risk.

And resistance to change is virtually part of our DNA. The Massive Change exhibit talked about how ancient man was hardwired to fear change in nature, because it literally signaled near-certain death. So we're not just homebodies or stubborn. Change is hard for us humans.

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So there's this grocery store just a few blocks from my new house. I'd seen billboards for the place as I drove, but never really given it serious consideration. The signs say things like "Welcome back to the days of good advice from your grocer." They show a balding man with an apron and a smile. The logo has a 1950's soda shop sensibility. Does it appeal to me? Meh. My first reaction was, "They probably carry a bunch of obscure products and no-name brands. I better stick with Jewel."

However, when a neighbor mentioned that the store was decent, I gave it a second thought. I mean, it's only a few blocks from my home - way closer than Jewel. And I certainly don't get advice from Jewel, old-fashioned or otherwise. Maybe this store did fit my values. It was at least worth a try.


So I walk in, and the store is humongous. I'm talking Wal*Mart-sized aisles, and Costco-high ceilings. More warehouse than soda shop. This inspired a mixed reaction: Sweet, maybe their prices are low, followed by Ugh, I'll have to weed through zillions of products. My first thought was definitely not "local grocer." Where was the produce guy spritzing the tomatoes? Where was the pimply teenager sweeping the floor?

Besides comparing the store to its own branding, I also found myself comparing it to Jewel. But in this regard I was further disappointed. I spent a full hour wandering Strack & Van Til that first time, head up, taking in every sign. You might say I was mapping the store's layout to my mental blueprint of a grocery store. And when it didn't match up, I kept thinking, "This isn't where Jewel puts the cereal" and "This isn't how Jewel does its endcaps."

But it didn't seem fair to compare the store to competitors or branding. I was on a search for authenticity, after all, so I decided to run a little test.


As I navigated the produce section, I came upon the fresh herbs. Now typically, I don't buy fresh herbs because of the waste. No recipe requires much more than a pinch of this or a sprig of that, and inevitably, a big clump of greens goes bad in my crisper. But as I eyed the cilantro, I had an idea. I would take only as much as I needed, and then see if the checkout person would charge me. Because a real "local grocer" would pass it by the register with a wink.

So I literally took two stems of cilantro, weighing basically nothing, and stuck them in a plastic bag. The price was 69 cents a bunch.

When I got to the checkout, the cashier said "Is this cilantro?" I smiled and said "Yeah, though I only needed a little bit, heh heh. Hope that's okay!" She said "Sure, it's fine," and rung it up at full price. 69 cents.

I left disappointed. Not only was this store WAY different than Jewel, it was SO not the "good old-fashioned advice" place I'd been picturing. Even though my expectations were probably unfair, they weren't met and I was let down. I resigned to never go again.

However...it was so close to home. A two-minute drive. And it's not like this place was worse than Jewel. Just...different. Is different necessarily bad?

The following week, I decided to give it one more try.

This time, I wasn't quite so freaked about finding my way around. I remembered where to find the cereal, and that lemonade was over by juice, around the corner from milk. I was able to shop my list more efficiently, and this allowed me way more freedom to explore new areas (an olive bar! a fancy cheese cooler!) I spent less time, but I think I bought more.


And you know what else, the staff seemed infinitely friendlier too. A stock boy helped me locate ricotta cheese, without seeming the least bit annoyed. When the bagger discovered that my glass milk bottle was leaky, she cheerily ran to get me another. And when I was just out the door, another staffer ran after me to hand me the cinnamon I'd left at the checkout! It seemed like this time, they were going above and beyond. Like a local grocer would.

But the best part was when I saw the grocer himself. I turned and there he was, the man from the sign! Walking into an office that said "Management." It felt like a flash of 1950's dream sequence. I liked that he wasn't just some random old dude - he was actually the real manager of this very store. And knowing that he advertises in my neighborhood (and is probably struggling to compete for customers on my very street) is enough to endear him to me. Maybe next time, he'll come out and give me some good advice.

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The devil you know is still a devil. The devil you don't know could be worse, or it could be better. But the chance is probably 50/50, so isn't it worth a shot? I know that many retailers hesitate to make any major changes to their stores, because of the outcry that typically follows. Loyal shoppers of 40 years throw up their hands and go elsewhere. But I urge retailers and shoppers alike to reconsider. Be patient, and give it a second try.

Because when everything is new, it's totally overwhelming. The first time we shop for the same products in a new place, it's essentially a search for familiarity. It's like seeking out McDonald's in a foreign country.

But the next time we visit that country, we venture out. We turn down new streets and sample new tastes. Likewise, the second time we shop, the comfort level is way higher. We can find our repeat purchases more easily, so we have more mindspace to discover something new. I can't buy fancy olives until I've found the milk.

This world is full of disappointments, and it's easier to remember them than the pleasant surprises. However, if there's something you've been hanging on to, admittedly or not due to a distaste for change, I encourage you to sample the devil you don't know. It might not be such a devil after all.

9 comments:

Mario Vellandi said...

Sara, welcome back! I loved the story, and it's so true about being resistant to change and how our initial experience isn't necessarily reflective of absolute reality.
Hope you're enjoying the new home!

Stacy said...

Yay! Welcome back, Curious Shopper! We missed you.

As one of my friends likes to say, "Change is good. You go first."

C. B. Whittemore said...

Sarah, what a treat getting to see the world -and new one at that- from your eyes! Happy new home and happy pre-wedding adventures.

dropshipdesign said...

what a fabulous post! you write with such depth! obviously, its the first time i'm at your blog.. but great job! i'll come back for more!

shalini said...

Loved reading your perspective. I totally agree with how you feel, it's such a waste of time wading through these huge supermarkets and not getting any personalized service. Congrats on the new home!

Eliina said...

As a fellow Logan Square resident (not to be a stalker, but from your condo building photo I think you live on my block), I also had a hard time adjusting to Strack's layout when I first moved to the neighborhood. But I've found that their employees are much more helpful and friendly than those at the Jewel in my old hood. When I've called to make sure they had a particular item before heading over(for example rhubarb), they've actually searched for it with no negative attitude, which astounded me. Perhaps my standards for service were low from years of bad experiences. :)

Lynn Stevens said...

Strack & Van Til is okay. For me, I don't like the warehouse type feel. Environment is very important to be. On the smaller scale in the neighborhood are Sunrise Fresh Market on Milwaukee and Tony's on Fullerton. Worth checking out, though they have their own faults.

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