The Super Dollar delivers cheap prices, if not exactly social justice

Super Dollar Discount Foods, one of the latest approaches to discount retailing by a major grocery chain in Knoxville, sacrifices atmosphere and selection to lower prices. Owned by K-VA-T Food Stores, the parent company of Food City, Super Dollar opened in June in an Asheville Highway strip mall just east of Chilhowee Park.

When I say the store sacrifices atmosphere, I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. A lot of what passes for atmosphere in grocery stores is cutesy décor more suitable for a daycare center than an emporium for adults.

The Knoxville store, only the seventh Super Dollar opened by K-VA-T in their three-state territory, strips all that nonsense away, leaving broad, sanitized-looking aisles and empty spaces.

The produce department occupies a large corner of the store without actually filling it with a lot of produce. This probably comes under the heading of sacrificing selection, but enhances the impression of emptiness. It looks like the set of a Stanley Kubrick movie—cold, gleaming, antiseptic, slightly alien to human life. Pre-recorded announcements periodically interrupt the piped-in music, more lifelike than Hal the computer in 2001 but not terribly cozy all the same.

The announcements generally sell the store's central concept—a chain supermarket offering nothing but the chain's own discount brands, in this case, Valu Time and Food Club canned and packaged foods, Top Care health and beauty products, and Paw Premium pet foods. "Because we buy directly from the manufacturer," the Voice says, "you save 20, 30, even 40 percent."

At times the Voice can sound a bit condescending. "If your family is growing faster than your income," he recommends, "try our store's discounted baby products." I suppose it might be worse if he were recommending discount condoms, but it is hard to sort out the proper reaction to a clean, well-lit, inviting presentation of what amounts to one of the smaller slices of the big American pie.

In 2005, the President's mother visited Katrina refugees at the Houston Astrodome and infamously chuckled that "so many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." After five minutes in the Super Dollar, I began to think exactly what Mrs. Bush was thinking, which made my flesh crawl.

Would it somehow be preferable or more honest to be selling cheap food in a rundown building with bars on the storefront? Would it be better if the store were price gouging? Of course not.

Our standard selection of staples totaled $31.39 at Super Dollar compared to $44.94 at the Bearden Kroger, definitely not my idea of social injustice. In packaged goods, you can get pretty much everything you would want at the store.

Although selection in produce and meats at Super Dollar was restricted, the quality was good. The day I visited there was a special on collard greens; the clumps of collards were huge and fresh and the display table was nearly empty.

There are only a few refreshing exceptions to the creepy pleasantness of the store, like the hand-scrawled sign at the manager's station stating, "No, we do not have a courtesy phone." Shoppers were numerous, more here than in the nearby Save-a-Lot, and in no apparent way unhappy with the Super Dollar experience.

So what's my gripe? While the shoppers here who can't afford to go anywhere else for groceries need good jobs even more than they need a price break, the Super Dollar's job is to deliver cheap, decent food, not change we can believe in.

I know it's just a grocery store, but I like my grocery stores with a bite of reality. Any emotion that reflects the truth on the ground—anger, resentment, even condescending smugness—is better than no emotion at all. That's why, emerging from the unrelenting niceness of Super Dollar, I wished I had visited with Mrs. Bush.