check_out (2007-52)

Saving Grace

Check-out

You may be under surveillance but you will save money

Save-A-Lot ⢠2003 Broadway, North Knoxville

Whatâ’s the Save-A-Lot story? People need to eat to live. If you donâ’t have money you canâ’t eat. If you donâ’t have very much money, the first thing you buy is food, and you buy as much of it as you can get for the money you have.

Thatâ’s it, in a nutshell. Save-A-Lot is in the business of selling food at a major discount. Price is their primary selling point; the Save-A-Lot chain claims that its patrons save up to 40 percent on the groceries they buy.

The North Knoxville Save-A-Lot sits in the shadow of St. Maryâ’s Hospital in the Broadway Shopping Center, home of Cash Advance, Family Dollar, Dollar General, Goodwill, Rent-A-Center, a pawn shop, and the Fellini Kroger. (No one knows who coined the nickname, but it may have been snooty employees of Whittle Communications in the 1980s.)

Itâ’s clear that people who come to the shopping center are poor, and just as clear that some people who arenâ’t poor donâ’t quite know how to react to people who have to shop at stores like Save-A-Lot.

The Save-A-Lot chainâ’s PR material takes the social worker approach: â“Save-A-Lot is committed to providing a safe, clean, convenient, and dignified shopping experience for its customers.â[T]he company believes that all shoppers deserve a respectful shopping environment.â”

On the ground the message is little different. As you enter Save-A-Lot, signs tell you to check your bags with the cashier and get ready for full video surveillance. There may be very good reasons for these precautions. I couldnâ’t figure out the warnings on the storeâ’s shopping carts, though: â“Caution: The cart will stop suddenly if taken beyond the yellow line.â” The carts fill the parking lot as at every other supermarket, and rolled unimpeded over every yellow line I could find in and out of the store.

Indeed, the storeâ’s bark in general seems worse than its bite. As I entered the store I was greeted pleasantly by a slightly grizzled woman in a baseball cap and blue hair net at the cash register. The store is small, the shoppers white, black, and Hispanic, and interactions among them seem relaxed and easy.

Going to the Save-A-Lot is a bit like enrolling in a survivalist workshop. Youâ’re roughing it to save money, and among the shoppers and employees (who presumably arenâ’t pulling in fat paychecks either) thereâ’s the kind of camaraderie that develops in groups of wilderness campers, or people sharing the same lifeboat.

At Save-A-Lot youâ’re not exploring 12 different ways to cook grubs or how to make your own toilet paper from bamboo, but, as the chainâ’s online media material points out, you wonâ’t find cappuccino kiosks or an in-store floral department here, either. The store commissions and distributes its own brands of low-cost foods, sells name brands that are weeks away from their expiration dates, and â“editsâ” the food it sells to those basics that everyone wants.

The savings on our standard shopping trip, while not 40 percent, were still substantial. Groceries priced at $39.26 at our benchmark store, the Bearden Kroger, cost $31.88 at Save-A-Lot.

The store is clean as advertised, but the walls are slightly battered and need fresh paint. As far as I could tell there was no problem with the quality of the food. The J. Higgs-brand potato chips and chicken-flavored crackers I sampled were as palatable as name-brand junk food; the Wylwood canned green beans taste like Del Monteâ’s best.

At the check-out, not surprisingly, a lot of people buy with debit or credit cards, so many that the lady in the baseball cap greeted everyone coming through the line with a brisk â“Debit or credit?â” The elderly man in overalls in front of me was confused.

â“Do you punch in the numbers, honey, or sign for it?â” the cashier asked. When the man still couldnâ’t figure it out, the cashier helped him run his card through the machine.

â“Debit or credit?â” she asked me next, as I pulled out a $20 bill. â“Or cash!â” she exclaimed. â“Thatâ’s just fine. We love cash!â”

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