I don’t know what’s more difficult: successfully negotiating your way through the self-check-out aisles at Stop & Shop without triggering the alarm or presently trying to find a relocated box of Cheerios.
The mission used to be clear. In fact, until recently, I had it down to a science. It was 14 minutes max - in and out - and everything stuffed into one bag.
First: If you are heading into the jungle, you gotta do it solo and carry your own grocery list. My wife gets distracted with items on sale and expiration dates and bogged down in the produce section so she’s gotta be left behind.
Second: Skip the far-right side of the store because most of that stuff is way too healthy.
Third: Keep the mission simple - grab the Cape Cod chips, 1/2 pound of ham and Swiss, bread, pancake mix, real maple syrup, Propel, a rotisserie chicken (still warm), some eggs and then stare down the Something Natural chocolate cookies even though they will inevitably end up in your cart.
Done. All four food groups covered, and I am back in my truck and set for the week in under 14 minutes.
That was until Captain Chris Rhea and his team showed up.
Chris is from the Boston area and is part of an army of Stop & Shop reconstruction workers that presently have the store torn apart and the local shoppers predictably frustrated.
“We’ll be here till the end of the month and then back in April to finish up. It’s about a three- to four-month project” said the former Navy guy who has dabbled in everything from engineering and machinery to firefighting and culinary management topped off with a Master’s in Business."
Rhea works for SAS Retail, a third-party vendor that Stop & Shop has hired to help remodel the mid-island store.
“We have upwards of 50 people on-island - plumbers, construction workers, electricians, support staff. I know it seems frustrating right now but what we are doing will actually save people time and make their shopping experience more enjoyable,” said Rhea.
“We expect a few angry customers here and there because I know we have interrupted their routines. No one likes change. Except for a few, everyone has been well behaved and certainly not as nasty as Falmouth,” Chris noted.
As strange as it might seem today, there is a method to their madness. After spending some time with Chris, I think this may fly. Before I dove into some of our local concerns, Chris did explain that their remodeling effort is a nationwide program by Stop & Shop, primarily driven by the fact that they need to acknowledge the needs of their customers and respond to their competitors who are increasingly aggressive with their marketing and upgrades.
“Larger stores are forcing our hand. On-line shopping, Instacarts - people want convenience. Walmart did over a half billion in grocery sales alone,” added the Stop & Shop renovation captain.
For Nantucket, his explanation seemed pretty simple.
“Our remodeling efforts are based on analytics. Ultimately, all Stop & Shop stores nationwide will have the same basic layout,” said Chris. “When you shop here on Nantucket, the layout will be the same as it is in Hyannis, Boston, etc.”
Chris went on: “For Nantucket, that is particularly important as you have so many off-island visitors during the summer. When they come into the store, their experience will be the same as their experiences back home in NY, OH, CT. Plus, for the locals, you will notice wider aisles, expanded international offerings, all new freezers and refrigeration, etc. But again, it’s all about the layout. No matter where you shop, a better layout leads to better familiarity which saves our shoppers time.”
Even though there is a “science” to it, Rhea’s plan seemed pretty simple to me. Shoppers enter the building and shop from right to left. Typically, Stop & Shop stores start with all the produce, perishables, condiments, pastas, etc. in the first few aisles. As Chris pointed out, “To us, aisle three is key. Everyone will live in aisle three which is now wider than before.”
From there, you move into your breads in aisle 5 along with peanut butter and jellies. Cereals, breakfast items and natural products as you slide into aisles 6 and 7.
“Then, we start chasing your sweet tooth”, chuckled Chris. “After aisle 7, you’ll start to see cookies and sweets followed by coffees, teas and crackers. Now, you are thirsty so water, juices, sodas and sparkling water around aisles 8 and 9 - then chips in aisle 10 before transitioning out of food and into housewares and seasonal items in aisle 11.”
“Stop & Shop does not want to forget anyone,” Chris went on to say. “We keep the baby food products separate from the regular food aisles. Plus, the vitamins and pet products will be towards the end near the last section of cleaning products, laundry, trash bags, paper products, etc. before you move into Adam Noonan’s deli and meats,” Chris pointed out.
But at the end of the day, what concerns most shoppers on Nantucket is quality and price. Frankly, over the past few years, the quality has gone down while the prices have skyrocketed up.
“I was very surprised to see the pricing out here,” said Rhea. “Our renovations do not have an impact on that but all of us who came over to work were surprised”.
I was probably pressing the wrong guy for this type of financial info. However, when Chris confirmed the rumor that on a per square foot basis, Nantucket’s Stop & Shop grosses more than any other branch, I think it’s safe to say that prices are not coming down.
“But what about quality?” I asked. “It seems the quality level has suffered over the last few years such as food packaged past its expiration date - produce not fresh - shelves often empty - and the cleanliness of the store.”
Chris mentioned supply chain issues, freight to the island, labor shortages, the impact of limited organic farming on Nantucket, worldwide food producing issues, etc. Much of it sounded reasonable but I sense Chris was hoping that an improved shopping environment would lead to improved quality and more options. I am hoping for that too because there are far too many cases of people unwrapping a meat product only to find it brown on the underside but conveniently packaged at a sale price on the other.
As we wrapped things up, I still had some unfinished business. My best time to date is 10:29 - in and out with my grocery list - one bag and back on the road. With a redesigned layout and the benefit of some advanced intel, Chris assured me that a personal best was possible.
“Could I break the 10-minute mark like Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile,” I asked.
“With a little practice, you’ll be in good shape by the summer,” Chris responded.
That’s sayin’ a lot. The damn self-check-out is always my nemesis. Inevitably, I forget to throw the eggs in the bag and the next thing you know, I got alarms going off and Sergeant Bates standing behind me with cuffs in hand.
Nevertheless, I am going to give Stop & Shop a pass for now. Let’s see where they are around Daffodil Weekend. Better they complete the renovations this spring versus working during the chaotic summer season. As Frederick Hayes once said, “There is no way to make people like change. You can only make them feel less threatened by it.”
Once the renovations are finished, I plan to do some serious training. My goal is to break that 10-minute mark. And despite what Captain Rhea said about “aisle 3 being key for efficiency and inevitably the most popular with our shoppers,” for me, it’s all about aisle 10...
Cape Cod Chips: Now, two for $9.00.
Editor's note: Jennifer Brogan, Stop & Shop's director of external communications and community, Relations, responded to the publication of this column by stating that "not only is he (Rhea) not authorized to speak on behalf of the company, he is not aware of Stop & Shop's strategy, pricing or marketing approach. Stop & Shop does not endorse or support his personal opinions."