For Schnucks, Friendly Just Isn't Enough

A plan to close three city Schnucks stores sets off a backlash

On Friday, St. Louis Ald. Lyda Krewson (D-28th) joined in the Board of Aldermen's unanimous voice vote to investigate Schnucks' decision to close two city stores. On Saturday, she was shopping at Schnucks, but not at one of the stores targeted for closure. Instead, she was at the Schnucks on Clayton Road, next to the Esquire Theatre in Richmond Heights.

Krewson could have shopped at the Schnucks at Kingshighway and Delmar; Delmar is the northern boundary of her ward, which includes the fashionably upscale Central West End. That store was one of the three the chain announced it was going to close. Krewson says she shops in Richmond Heights simply because "it's a better store." She adds, "I wish we had a store that good in the city."

Schnucks president Craig Schnuck would say, pretty much, that there are stores that good in the city and that the Kingshighway store is not far off the mark. "There are a lot of people in the neighborhood around Delmar and Kingshighway who don't shop there," says Schnuck. "They go elsewhere to shop. That's what we're trying to address."

Part of the grocer's attempt to address the image thing is giving in to the St. Louis Clergy Coalition's request to keep the Kingshighway store open for six more months. The store located at 1030 Cass Ave., on the northern fringe of downtown, behind the Greyhound bus station, was closed on Saturday. The Schnucks Express store in Affton, at Gravois and Mackenzie roads, also closed Saturday.

The closings take on political and social significance because, to some, they appear to be fallout from the great supermarket merger of 1995, when Schnucks bought 57 National supermarkets but then, under anti-trust pressure from Attorney General Jay Nixon, had to sell 23 supermarkets to a group of former National executives. Schnucks also sold one other location to Wild Oats Community Markets. The new National chain faltered, and most of its locations are now closed.

But merger or no merger, the three Schnucks stores in the news last week had problems. The two city stores -- both on the southern edge of predominantly black North St. Louis -- are in areas seen as rough and declining. The Affton store was a smaller, experimental store in a white inner-ring suburb with a heavy concentration of elderly residents. According to Craig Schnuck, all three stores were losing money.

Schnucks is the only large chain facing hard times in the city. Its main metropolitan competitor, Dierbergs, has no stores in the city. Shop 'N Save has one. Aldi, a discount grocer, has four stores in the city. Schnucks had 11 stores in the city; with the closing of the Cass Avenue store, it has 10. Four are north of Lindell Boulevard.

Schnucks built new stores in the city in the last decade, including one at Union Boulevard and Natural Bridge Road in North St. Louis. That store, according to Craig Schnuck, has just started to break even -- behind schedule, but at least it's not losing money. The store on North Grand Boulevard by Fairgrounds Park loses money, but not as much as the Kingshighway store.

That Krewson doesn't shop at the Schnucks that was almost closed is no surprise -- a good number of CWE people with the means to shop elsewhere do so, for reasons real and imagined. And even with the Clergy Coalition's come-to-Jesus meeting with Schnucks executives, the six-month extension given the Kingshighway store may just be a stay of execution. It will take more than exhortations from the pulpit to change shopping habits enough to erase what the chain claims is a $560,000-a-year deficit.

Even though the Kingshighway store appears clean and safe, it suffers from a double whammy -- potential shoppers south of the Mason-Dixon Line of Delmar are deterred by an old image of a funky, dangerous store; those north of Delmar may think the $1.5 million renovation five years ago and the Schnucks name mean higher prices and, as a result, head to discount grocers like Aldi.

Image has a lot to do with where people buy their Cheerios. During this recent folderol over the Schnucks closings, one entry on the "stLouIST," an Internet e-mail listserver focused on the city, provided a glimpse on the baser reasons some folks avoid the Kingshighway store. The writer of the entry, a person whom we, mercifully, will not name, admitted that her experience occurred while she was shopping there when it was a National store in '95. She wrote that despite being so close to the CWE, "unbelievably, even though the Central West End is a very racially mixed neighborhood, I would usually be the only white person in there."

And there's more: "The place was filthy, had a horrible and very bizarre selection of food (i.e., pig feet and snouts), and they'd generally be out of most popular items." Cashiers were "completely rude and surly" and "the majority of people in line would be paying with food stamps." No, that's not all. "I generally got sexually harassed by various people in the store and on the parking lot -- I attributed it to me being a white female." OK, OK. So this e-mail filing is a case study in ethnocentrism, classism and, well, let's leave it at that.

But this woman had this experience years ago and she's still bothering to talk about it, even on the Internet, so there is an image problem. (Schnucks is not the sole target of her disdain -- she calls the Shop 'N Save at Chippewa and Kingshighway a place to see "the dregs of humanity" and says she feels like a "supermodel when I go there, in comparison." Oh, honey, is that a good thing?)

Craig Schnuck expected negative coverage of the closings, and he'll likely get more after the start of aldermanic hearings, chaired by Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th), the alderwoman whose struggles with Ald. Kenneth Jones (D-22nd) for years delayed the opening of the Schnucks on Union Boulevard. But Schnuck is confident that he's made a good-faith effort, and the lease on the Kingshighway store is written in such a way that if the store does close, he won't have to offer the space to another grocer.

Schnuck also denies allegations that his stores indulge in "zone pricing," which means items at stores with more overhead are priced higher. Judging from the results of an unofficial, unscientific Saturday survey by "Short Cuts," he appears to be right. A 10-ounce box of Cheerios is $2.99 wherever, and pigs' feet at the Kingshighway store are 99 cents per pound, whether you want them or not.

THE PRODIGAL HORRIGAN RETURNS: The peripatetic Kevin Horrigan has returned to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to write a Sunday op-ed column and occasionally weigh in with editorials. His first column, on Sept. 10, was a lame effort that included 26 first-person pronouns: I, I, aye. Is this the Descartes School of Journalism? "I think about myself, therefore I am worth reading about." The column misread the Kmart-replacing-Southtown-Famous-Barr feud, saying Famous was "white gloves and French onion soup." Maybe the downtown Famous was a tad upscale years ago, but the Southtown F-B was anything but. The lede was buried in the fifth-to-last paragraph, where the mouthpiece for the developer admitted that this was "an expensive piece of property" and, what with the teardown and taxes, "it'll take $7 million to recoup our investment."

Horrigan last penned his thoughts at the Post-Dispatch back in 1989, when he announced in a memo to colleagues that he was quitting to work at Ralph Ingersoll's St. Louis Sun. That paper folded after seven months. The memory of the memo was that he burned his bridges at the Post by dissing management, but, on rereading it now, it seems his main mistake was his read of Ingersoll, whom Horrigan then described as "pretty sharp," and his belief that the Sun was not "Gluck two," referring to Jeffrey Gluck, the ill-fated owner of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in its final days. Horrigan's worst line in the memo was "I think I know bullshit when I see it." Let's hope his eyesight and judgment have improved.

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