The Super Bowl of shopping kicks off this weekend as Southern Californians prep for Thanksgiving, but it could be a turkey for the biggest supermarket chains.
The supermarket strike has disrupted holiday routines for shoppers -- and for grocery stores that usually rely on sales of all the trimmings for as much as 10% of their annual totals.
"The labor dispute has turned things on its head," said Terry O'Neil, spokesman for the Ralphs chain, which is owned by Kroger Co. "This is a unique period we are going through in which a lot of shoppers are in play."
A spot check this week found that Southern Californians are largely staying away from Albertsons Inc. outlets and Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores, where union pickets patrol parking lots and entrances urging shoppers to take their business elsewhere. At Ralphs stores, where picket signs came down three weeks ago at labor's behest, aisles weren't exactly crowded.
In fact, six weeks into the supermarket labor dispute, shoppers have gotten used to trying other chains, including Trader Joe's, Stater Bros., Bristol Farms and local markets. And people who have crossed picket lines say they have been disappointed by what they have found on the shelves.
What's more, some stores aren't giving shoppers huge incentives to venture in. Prices on frozen turkeys -- typically a big holiday lure -- are about the same as they were last year, except for at Albertsons stores, which are offering fresh Foster Farms and Zacky Farms turkeys for 79 cents a pound, 50 cents a pound less than a year ago, and turkey specials.
That was enough for Jessica Aguirre of Los Angeles, who on Wednesday made her first trip to an Albertsons since the strike began because she couldn't resist the buy-one-get-one-free special on its frozen turkeys.
"They were trying to get us in and they did," she said, loading two 20-plus-pound birds into the back of her sedan. "They had the best deal."
But other shoppers complained about what they said was a lack of discounts. In fact, Ralphs has raised prices on some Thanksgiving staples. The grocer is charging $6.99 for bottles of Beringer or Meridian wine, $1 more than last year; and Mrs. Cubbison's dressing is $2 a box, up from $1.50. Frozen C&W; peas are $2 this year, compared with $1.79 a year earlier.
"There are very few deals of any level to be had," said Jerry Upham, who shopped at Ralphs in North Hollywood earlier this week. "Prices have been so marked up that when they give you that illusory deal, you just get a decent price."
Upham, a self-professed coupon clipper, said his choice for stocking up on holiday staples probably would be Food 4 Less, a Kroger store not involved in the labor dispute.
Some analysts said the three supermarket chains involved in the strike had little motivation to slash prices this holiday partly because they have agreed to share funds during the strike. Ralphs is seeing a windfall since the union decided last month to pull its pickets there to focus on the other two chains.
Said Meredith Adler of Lehman Bros.: Why would Albertsons and Vons "go insane to get people back in the stores" if they will share in whatever business Ralphs picks up anyway?
But retail consultant Burt Flickinger III said a big drop in sales at Vons and Albertsons could prove damaging to all three because sales during the period from Nov. 15 to the day before Thanksgiving account for about 10% of a chain's total annual revenue. Already, the three chains missed out on lucrative Halloween sales in the current quarter.
Flickinger said that "many shoppers won't take the risk" of going to stores with pickets, fearing the depleted supplies. At some of the stores being picketed this week, stocks appeared low: Store managers were piling two-liter bottles of Coke in produce cases and stashing throw pillows and thermal blankets in bread aisles.
"The most frustrating thing that shoppers have told us is to go into a store ... and it not have three or four items that they need and so they have to go to another store," he said.
For their part, Vons executives said that despite leaner stocks of some perishables such as produce and dairy, stores would have adequate supplies of all the things customers need for the big meal. "We have been adjusting throughout the whole strike, ordering appropriately and managing inventory appropriately," said spokeswoman Sandra Calderon. "We're ready."
Some strikers walking the picket lines outside Vons and Albertsons stores this week worried that holiday shoppers would start crossing the lines in droves, but union leaders said they weren't concerned.
"I believe we have the support of consumers and I see no reason why that should change this weekend," said Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 770.
The chains and the union have agreed to return to mediation starting today.