Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No Two Ways About It

Like I mentioned in the inaugural post here on PWUW, there seem to always be two sides to the coin - sometimes you just have to flip something over yourself to see the other side.

As far as "big name" grocers go, Philadelphia is home to two competing "giants," Whole Foods and more recently, Trader Joe's.  I remember the first time I went to either establishment quite vividly, as both of them were experiences unlike I'd ever had before in the world of grocery shopping.  Coincidentally, neither event occurred in Center City.

The first time I went to Whole Foods, it was still known as Fresh Fields.  My husband and I went there for lunch when we first started dating - he's always taken me to the classiest joints.  Anyway, we went to the prepared food area, which I'd never seen before in my Acme or indie grocers, and we luncheoned on free-range chicken breast and organic salad while sipping special/weird sodas at a green plastic table in the sunshine of a "comfortable" Main Line town in between his workplace and mine.

The first time I went to Trader Joe's was in Reno, Nevada, with a friend of mine who lived out there.  The store was fascinating - brightly lit and full of fascinating and bizarre things that at that time only existed on the West Coast.  The most spectacular part of our trip, though, was checking out.  We loaded the groceries onto the belt, the cashier scanned and bagged them, and after we paid, we left the store sans grocery bags.  I thought this was a little odd and voiced my opinion and was promptly shushed by my pals.  We walked into the parking lot and I'll tell you - I don't know how I missed this before, but there was a conveyor belt from the store, which was on the second floor of the building, to the garage below and here came our groceries!

So, fantastic novelties aside, let's talk about the two in Philadelphia.  For the last 6-7 years, I have faithfully gone to the Whole Foods on South Street once a week and purchased all the produce and other things I needed to be high-quality or organic, and carted them all home.  In the 5-6 years that the Trader Joe's has taken up residence in a far western corner of Center City, I have been in there about four times. This is entirely because it's so far from where I live, because I am very impressed with what I've seen the few times I've been there.

Between a slightly less than stellar product and customer service experience I've had at Whole Foods lately and the realization of how much money I save when I shop at Trader Joe's, I've resolved to abandon Whole Foods for the month of August to see exactly how worthwhile it might be for me to trek clear across town once a week just to buy groceries.  This is basically a convenience vs. financial savings contest, but some interesting customer service experiences lately have tossed some spice into the mix.  First up, Whole Foods.

I'd like to start by saying that I have, for the most part, been quite happy with my shopping adventures at Whole Foods.  Unfortunately, and this seems to be a recent change, the customer service is just not what it used to be.  I've been smiled at broadly and offered perfectly juicy local strawberries by the girl who was stocking them.  I've had a young man demonstrate the difference in taste between a Bartlett and D'Anjou pear by slicing a piece off of each for me to try.  I recently asked a young man who was stocking peppers if he could direct me to organic peppers.  He did better - he went in the back room and pull out a big crate for me to pick from, since they were not yet on the shelves.

More recently, though, I've been made to feel in the way while shopping because it's important to restock this exact area right now.  I've cringed at a loud (and somewhat uncouth) conversation between two employees taking place over top of the tomatoes I'm trying to pick out.   Here, though, is what made me say "Maybe the convenience isn't worth these excessively high prices - for conventionally grown food, I'll point out - if the employees don't give a damn."

My husband and I love hummus.  Imagine my delight upon finding that the big tubs of Asmar's hummus were on sale!  I scooped one up and took it home with me, but before Mister and I could dig in a couple of days later, we noticed something that made us a little less excited to do so - the tub was expanding.  The top was popping.  There appeared to be layers of air forming like little stratus clouds between layers of hummus.  We thought this was probably not supposed to happen, so four days after purchasing the hummus, I took it back to Whole Foods.

There were two women in the Customer Service booth.  One did not want to deal with me, so I explained to the other that my hummus was trying to explode and put the popping container on the counter.  She asked if I had a receipt.  I said I did not keep it because I did not expect the hummus to explode.  At this point, the other woman asked me if I wanted to exchange it.  My first thought was, "if this hummus is bad, why would the others be okay?" But I really like hummus, so I was willing to take my chances.  They told me to go get a new hummus and they would put a paid sticker on it.  The transaction took place as described, but I was getting a whole lot more attitude from the one girl than I thought was necessary, considering that Whole Foods is the only place in CC that I've seen that brand of hummus.

That encounter may not sound like a big deal, and in the grand scheme of things, it's really not.  But it is enough to make me reconsider my desire to pay $4.50 for a conventionally grown red pepper.

Enter Trader Joe's.  Shortly before this incident occurred, I needed an ingredient that could only be sourced at TJ's, so I decided that as long as I was there, I'd grab some of the other things on my list and see if I could save some money.  If I had to guess, over the past four trips to TJ's, I'd say I've saved enough over what I would have paid for the same groceries at Whole Foods that I got at least one shopping trip "for free."  How's that for value?

The very first time I went, though, I got three tomatoes.  They key in all the produce codes manually, so shame on me for not paying closer attention and saving myself a trip back later in the day, but the cashier punched in my tomatoes as something called "Blue Danish," which cost something like $8.99/lb.  So, my three 79-cent tomatoes ended up costing me over $25.  When I returned to the store (receipt in hand!) to see how this error could be corrected, the smiling woman at the Customer Service desk did not ask for any proof that I had not actually purchased $25-worth of Blue Danishes, and simply refunded my money, telling me not to worry about the tomatoes either.  Well, thank you, Ms. Customer Service, for showing me why I do want to spend $25 in your store.

I'm not trying to steer anyone to or away from either place as they both have their good points and bad points, but I'm hoping that Whole Foods will come upon this post and understand how important it is to have not just good but stellar customer service when you are asking me to pay 50% more for the same bag of groceries I can get elsewhere (with more organic stuff, too, I'd add).

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