Monday, March 16, 2009

From - The Five Paragraph Bitter Food Critic is Scared Amongst the Bargains


Bottom Dollar.gif

A decade ago, I dated a woman who worked as a grocery store consultant. She specialized in creating traffic flow through product layout and visual displays. I practically grew up in the grocery store my grandmother owned south of Annapolis, stocking the shelves for pocket money as a child, and managing inventory and the finances as an adult when her health faded. I thought I knew a lot about the grocery business, but I got a crash course in Grocery Store 101 from this consultant. Ever noticed how in the produce section uses lots of wood paneling and angled shelves? That's to give the customer the idea that the fruits and vegetables are "fresh from the farm," like they had been packed and shipped that very day. Colorful apples and oranges always get a prime location because they're eye-catching, while the lowly brown potato is regulated to back-of-the-aisle status. The meat section is the same way - higher-priced red meat is displayed prominently in front near the butcher's department, while lower-priced and less-colorful chicken is placed down the row 20 feet away. Seafood often gets its own corner section, as the mark-up on fresh fish and local crab meat is too much of a profit driver to just place haphazardly in the store. These little Jedi mind tricks are part of the subtle ways grocery chains subliminally herd you through the store. The consultant stressed the importance of initial visual impact - to make the store look appealing as soon as you walk in the door. High-end retailers like Harris-Teeter and Wegmans show either their incredibly sumptuous prepared-foods section or their diverse produce section right up front. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's can lead off with their wholesome baked goods or some special exotic food. Lots of new and refurbished Giants and Safeways entice customers with Starbucks locations as you enter. Newer locations of Shoppers like to start off with a large, colorful display of deeply-discounted products, thus proving to their value to the customer.

Then, there's Bottom Dollar Food. They don't have time for all that noise. They just leave a big ole' mess of cardboard right up front. See, Bottom Dollar is all about saving the consumer as much money as possible, so you can either pay a couple of cents for grocery bags, or use the free cardboard boxes. Sturdy boxes used to ship bottled water go quickly, while the small squares used to transport salt shakers are left to wallow. Some of the Bottom Dollar faithful bring their own. Either way, the boxes come in handy to haul away some pretty good deals. Prices are generally quite low - 2 liters of soda are half the price than the neighboring Giant. Fresh meats are about 15% per pound cheaper than their competitors. Produce is about 20% cheaper than the nearby Safeway.

Bottom Dollar is part of the Food Lion family, just like Bloom, which I reviewed in 2007. Unlike Bloom, Bottom Dollar doesn't try to hide its association with the parent company. They proudly sell Food Lion products as the generic options to the big brand names. Also, they don't have near the product diversity or the dutifully restocked shelves like Bloom. It's somewhat strange to see relatively thin inventories in an American grocery store, but that's the case at Bottom Dollar. You won't feel crowded or overwhelmed by the selection. Still, I got a large box of Honey Comb for $2.56 and a pound of frozen Alaskan pollack for $1.99 - about 33% cheaper than other stores.

However, I doubt I'll make regular trips to Bottom Dollar, and it has nothing to do with the products or the prices. It's the attitude. It breeds weirdness. The store is somewhat overly-lit, and their love of day-glo orange and green paint conjures up memories of the washed-out 1970s, and not the fun, coked-out 1970s, either, but of ugly station wagons with wood paneling. There's no background music playing, either - at least, not in any of my trips there so far - and there's something eerie about an almost silent grocery store. It's like the Centralia of shopping.

And, much like the few folks who remain in Centralia, frankly, the natives freak me out. This weekend, a married couple shopped with a Nextel dangling from a lanyard around the wife's neck, pulling double duty as a necklace and a phone. Their conversation with an offspring echoed and chirped throughout the frozen food aisle. And, while I'm thinking of it ...

Hey, Sprint, you want to know why you're taking a beating in the cell phone market? Because you purchased Nextel - THE MOST OBNOXIOUS CELL PHONE EVER! Nextels were cool for like a hot minute in 2000. Those "What if...?" commercials where firefighters run Congress and the delivery people run schools with their Nextels are only slightly less annoying than the new Comcast commercials with the weird monotone singing, bad acid flashback graphics and "The Sims"-like background. And, while I'm thinking of it - Hey, Comcast, I'm glad to see the outrageous amount of money I paid for basic digital cable and internet access for three years went to a good cause, like making THE MOST OBNOXIOUS CABLE COMMERCIAL EVER. I am now a proud FiOS customer, and I pay a lot less to have HD channels *included*, better channel selection, plus much faster internet access, and a lot more reliable service. For the record, the FiOS Guy/Cable Guy commercials are kind of funny. Learn from them, Comcast. Entertain potential customers, not make them think they drank tainted Flavor-Aid.

...sorry, I blacked out there for a second. Anyway, another customer, a man in his mid-50s, I suppose, was buying individual servings of frozen yogurt. Nothing odd about that normally, except this man was buying *A LOT* of yogurt. Like, an entire shelf of it. Like, even Jamie Lee Curtis couldn't eat that much yogurt. I estimated about 50 cups in his grocery cart as I walked past, and I watched him pull another 30 or so cups before the Nextel-couple asked him what he was going to do with all that yogurt. His reply was hardly as sinister as I hoped - "it's good for you!" - and yes, indeed he did intend to eat all that yogurt. The Nextel husband commented later to me in the checkout line that this stuff happens all the time at "Bottom Loser." Much like The Replacements, ironically, I can't hardly wait.

Bottom Dollar Foods gets 20 Whammies! out of a possible 25. I saved nearly 25% on my grocery bill at Bottom Dollar as opposed to similar trips to Safeway or Harris Teeter. However, I subtracted 2 Whammies! for the freaky Nextel couple, 1 Whammy! for the freaky yogurt guy, and two Whammies! for making me forage through the cardboard box dump to cart off my purchases. Shoppers used to do the same thing until they realized how ghetto that made them look. Take heed, Bottom Dollar...but, man, I do love cheap Honey Comb.

Bottom Dollar Foods
13 locations between Frederick and Fredericksburg.

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