Groceries, customers still reeling from closing|[10/23/05]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 23, 2005

Two months after one of Vicksburg largest groceries closed, former customers are still shopping for the best options.

&#8220I think Sack & Save has really left a void here in grocery stores,” said Bill Mullen of Clinton, who works in Vicksburg and shopped at Sack & Save, which closed its store at 2080 S. Frontage Road in August.

Mullen said he now buys groceries at Piggly Wiggly at 4306 Halls Ferry Road because it is near his work.

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The closing of Sack & Save by its parent company, Winn-Dixie of Jacksonville, Fla., leaves four large groceries in Vicksburg – County Market, 2101 Clay St.; IGA SuperValu Fresh Foods, 3046-O Indiana Ave.; Kroger, 3405 Pemberton Square Blvd.; and Wal-Mart SuperCenter, 2150 Iowa Blvd.

And those may not be enough, City planner Wayne Mansfield said. He thinks economic data shows there is room for expansion in the retail grocery market here.

Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that between 1997 and 2002 the number of Warren County food and beverage stores, not including Wal-Mart, dropped by two – from 29 to 27.

The number of paid employees of those stores dropped by 584 – from 935 to 351.

During that same time period, annual sales dropped by $25,118,000 – from $78,761,000 to $53,643,000.

Annual payroll dropped by $1,277,000 – from $6,943,000 to $5,666,000.

Those numbers may indicate some &#8220leakage” in grocery sales from Warren County to stores elsewhere, but how much is not clear since they do not account for Wal-Mart’s grocery sales.

The 200,000 square foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on Iowa Boulevard opened in 1998. Its number of employees doubled from 250 to 500. Vicksburg and Warren County used a tax-incentive program to help finance the store’s construction.

&#8220I think there is room, based on the numbers, for retail growth,” Mansfield said.

The owner of Piggly Wiggly, James Morgan, said every grocery store in Vicksburg benefited from the closing of Sack & Save.

&#8220We’re all out there trying to get that part of the business that’s out there,” Morgan said.

Loss of a major competitor such as Sack & Save might have been expected to reduce price competition, but it’s not clear if there was any effect.

&#8220I know I did some very hot ads trying to land some of that business,” Morgan said.

Wal-Mart manager Bobby Shumpert agrees. &#8220Competition’s getting tough,” he said.

He and Morgan said price competition is as strong as ever, if not stronger.

Shumpert said Wal-Mart has increased the number of items on which it pledges to match an advertised price.

At least two customers who shopped at Sack & Save, however, said they may be paying more for many items.

&#8220It depends on the item,” said a shopper at IGA, who asked not to be identified. &#8220I’m paying maybe a little bit more for some items here. But I love the atmosphere. It’s not congested. The aisles are wide and it’s easy to find everything.”

Mullen, too, said he believes his grocery bill had risen since late August.

Hurricanes Katrina on Aug. 29 and Rita on Sept. 24 both hit the oil-and-gas-producing region of the Gulf Coast, disrupting some supply and causing energy prices to rise.

Mullen saw that increase as a potential contributing factor to any grocery-price rises since the storms.

&#8220The crunch on gas has affected everything, from groceries on up to everything else,” Mullen said. &#8220It takes more to ship” groceries to supermarkets.

Morgan, however, said he had yet to see much if any effect on grocery prices from the increase in prices of oil and gas.

Shumpert said Wal-Mart’s grocery business increased sharply after Katrina and has since leveled off higher than it was before.

Morgan said since the hurricanes hit and Sack & Save hit so closely to each other that he doesn’t know how much of his increase in business was attributable to which one.

IGA co-manager Doyle Martin also attributed much of his store’s increase in sales to Katrina and said he’s not sure all former Sack & Save customers have settled into a new shopping pattern yet.

&#8220It may take another month before we will know where it will level off,” Martin said.

Sack & Save also had an adjacent gasoline station, called Pump & Save, and it also was consistently among the lowest-priced sellers in town.

&#8220The only thing I really hate about Sack & Save is the gas,” the IGA customer said of the pumps closing. &#8220It was just so convenient.”

The former Sack & Save shoppers cited convenience as the biggest factor in their choices of new places to shop.

The unidentified IGA shopper said she thought that store, located across Interstate 20 from Sack & Save, is about as convenient as Sack and Save.

&#8220I can zip in here,” she said of her route between home and work.

Sack & Save reportedly employed 60 people. Each manager interviewed said his store had hired two to seven of those people. Martin said he was prepared to hire more former Sack and Save employees if necessary.

The managers also said they think the current grocery-store capacity is about right for Vicksburg and that they can handle their current customer levels.

Kroger has rearranged aisles since August. Local management referred questions to the company’s Memphis office, whose spokesman David Chadwick was not available.

Asked about any change in the length of the typical checkout-line wait since late August, the unidentified IGA shopper said checkout lines there and at other local grocery stores have seemed to be longer at busy times.

Plans for at least one new grocery store along U.S. 61 nearer a fast-growing residential and commercial area of the county, northeast of Vicksburg, have been announced but not completed over the past 15 years.

Jay Tidwell, who owns Super Jr. stores at 204 U.S. 61 North and 1095 Oak Ridge Road, said his stores have seen little effect from the events of the past two months. The Super Jr. stores sell some grocery items and gasoline but do not compete directly with the larger grocery stores, Tidwell said.

&#8220I’m more convenience: get in and get out, at a decent price,” Tidwell said. &#8220I like to have more than one thing to offer people.”

One of the busiest times of the year for shopping is approaching. As the first holiday season without Sack & Save in the market it will bring some uncertainty for retailers, Shumpert said.

&#8220One of the challenges throughout the holiday season will be to stay in stock on key items,” Shumpert said, adding that predicting stocking levels in the changed environment will be essentially &#8220a shot in the dark.”

&#8220We don’t know what they were selling or how much volume,” Shumpert said of his strategy for stocking Wal-Mart through the holidays. &#8220We’ve got to get aggressive.”