Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Treasure Island: the Co-Op Meets Mr. Clean

posted by Elizabeth Fama

An attractive haul from Treasure Island

Friday, March 14th sure was a beautiful day to walk to the grocery store. And it was quite lovely to shop for just two nights' dinners within walking distance of my home. Carrying those groceries with my daughter, it felt almost like living in Europe. That's apparently what Treasure Island wants us to think, given that their bags are emblazoned with the logo America's most European supermarket.

Well, I don't know about that. But it was a whole lot cleaner than the Co-Op, and that's a start.

Which brings up this thought: it doesn't feel fair to review TI just yet, because it's really not their store. They're saddled with so many Co-Op leftovers: the shelves, the produce stands, the display cases, the fridges...it's all Co-Op equipment, scrubbed to death. For instance, no retailer in his right mind would choose the early-90s font on the aisle signs. And who knows how TI would have laid out the store (flow and configuration) if they'd had a blank slate.

It's clear that in order to effect a quick turnaround (I'm sorry, no matter how much the letters in the Herald whine, it was a quick turnaround), TI madly cleaned the joint, replaced broken equipment, patched up mouse holes, and passed their health inspections in the nick of time to stock the store and open it. Period. It's also clear they have loftier goals for the future: the fish department is divided in two, with fish on one side, and a hopeful-looking butcher wedged on the right. I imagine his station will be enlarged.

That said, right now TI is just...a really clean, well-stocked Co-Op. To be sure, I was pleased to find a few items that were never stocked at the Co-Op (they have my favorite brand of dried pasta: Rustichella d'Abruzzo. In fact the imported pasta section is nice). And it was great to see that the produce was fresh (e.g. baby eggplants that don't have soft spots and crepe-paper skins). The cheese department is promising. The jams are nice. They apparently have a special prosciutto slicer. There are some adorable imported candies next to the bulk section. The fish monger was delighted to see me, and that's always nice. After a few minutes in the store my shoulders dropped, and I stopped feeling like I was in the Co-Op, which -- call me a wimp -- used to stress me out.

Maybe I'm under the wrong impression about Treasure Island, but I was a little disappointed that it didn't have more, I don't know, Whole-Foodsy sorts of items. Maybe those will come with time, or maybe there aren't enough customers like me who want oat-flakes cereal, raw honey, candied ginger, rice pasta (not Asian rice noodles), and O.B. tampons.

Now, my daughter's college friend and my housekeeper had both told me that Treasure Island's produce seemed to them to be pricey. So here's a comparison list of some of the items in the above-pictured haul (the items that are carried both at Peapod and at TI). It's hardly scientific, but it's interesting, because -- for many of the things I purchase, at least -- TI does seem to be more expensive than Peapod:

Unscientific price-list comparison between Peapod and TI

On my way into the store, a cute little succulent plant caught my eye; it was Hens and Chicks in a terracotta pot, and I thought it would make a nice gift for my mother-in-law. I carried it around the store with me, and wouldn't you know, I dropped it. The small terracotta pot smashed, and I cringed inside. The fish monger came out from behind his counter with a dust pan and swept it up for me with a big smile.

"Silly me," I told myself, "this is Treasure Island. It's not the Co-Op!" And the plastic pot that was inside the terracotta pot was still intact. With happy resolve, I went back to the floral department to get myself a replacement terracotta pot. The true test of customer service, no?

Granted, the woman I spoke to was not the head of floral, she was just a helper.

Me: "I'm sorry, I broke the pot on this plant. Can I have another pot?"
Her: "Those come with the plant, I don't think we have any."
Me: "There are more of the same plant over there, can I take a pot from one of the others?"
Her: "We sell pots separately, if you want."
Me: "But I thought you said...wait, you mean I have to buy a pot? These things are, like, 25 cents at Home Depot."
Her: "Really?" (Looking at another sample of Hens and Chicks, and tapping the terracotta.) "This is glass, isn't it?"

In the time it took for us to have that conversation, I realized that my mother-in-law already has a lot of plants, and that maybe I shouldn't spend $6.99 to further clutter her window sill. So I put it back on the display and said, "I'm sorry I broke it, but I've decided not to purchase it."

A floral worker who's unfamiliar with terracotta pots? Despite the clean, well-stocked store, that sent little Co-Op shivers down my back.


chicago pop said...

Do I see some bagels in your stash?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Aw, Chicago Pop, I bought those bagels because of you. I wanted to report on them but the post was too long already. You should definitely try them and tell me what you think. They have a nice chewy texture, but the flavor falls flat for me.

Also, as a follow-up to the post: I went to TI yesterday and some shelves had become empty since my Friday trip, which means they had a booming weekend and haven't quite figured out how much inventory they need. That dust will settle soon, I'm sure.

Hyde said...

We break, we cry.
You break, you buy.

I have always thought that at least 50% percent of the Hyde Park service deficit was due to the shoppers.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely looking forward to the promised renovations. The leftover Co-op signage and decor is pretty hideous.

They ARE a little pricier than the average store but nothing like the Co-op was. I can handle paying a little more than I would at Pete's Fresh Market if I only have to go a few blocks instead of several miles.

Does anyone know if they're having a liquor counter there eventually? The old one in the basement is still gutted and locked up.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm not sure I understand hyde's comment. Are you saying that I should have paid for the terracotta pot? I don't think grocery stores normally have a you-break-it-you-buy-it policy, do they? If I dropped a carton of eggs, there would be a "cleanup in Aisle Three" announcement, but the employees wouldn't make me pay, would they?

Once again I'll have to appeal to KHS to insert her expertise on this subject.

In any case, I was friendly about it (anyone who knows me can vouch for that), and she was polite if not helpful, so the only customer service gaffe was the loss of a $6.99 sale over a 25 cent pot, and the loss of my confidence in at least one employee's expertise.

LPB said...

Last night there was some discussion of the new TI among some Hyde Park knitters who meet regularly on Monday evenings at the HP Art Center. One comment definitely stuck in my mind: A knitting shopper noticed that one of the former Co-Op cashiers had been hired by TI. The shopper asked the cashier what she thought of TI, and the cashier expressed very positive sentiments along the lines of "it's so much better than the Co-Op."

Other knitters also noticed the significantly cleaner produce department, and very friendly fish monger.

Stephen said...

I'd have to side with hyde on this one. It seems bad form to break a pot, and then use that as an opportunity to re-examine the decision to buy in the first place. In the case of broken eggs, presumably you would have bought another carton of eggs. The store would have still had the sale, and could have used that to offset the broken carton (i.e. a zero-sum-game). With the pot, they are simply down one potted plant with no offsetting sale.

Besides, didn't you feel just a bit guilty?

autumnmist said...

I've been doing my shopping from Peapod since I arrived in Hyde Park, so I ran the same comparison. Prices for sale items generally were slightly better at TI, for regular staple items it was about 55/45 for me between Peapod and TI with Peapod winning slightly. TI wins on selection by far though... did you know that Peapod does not sell a single jam/jelly that does NOT contain high fructose corn syrup? TI has a whole huge selection though!

Also, one thing you forgot in your comparison is that, the way I see it, for each item you order from Peapod you have to add maybe 25-50 cents to the price to account for the cost of Peapod's delivery+fuel fees.

Rosemary said...

It's fine to compare TI vs. Peapod, but how about $1.79/lb for vine tomatoes at Hyde Park Produce vs. over $6/lb at TI? I may go there some but will continue to do the majority of my shopping at HP Produce and outside of HP.

autumnmist said...

Oh yes, I plan to do most of my veggie shopping at Hyde Park Produce still, but certain produce items at HPP can be of iffy-quality, so I'm pretty thrilled to have TI as an option/alternative, especially for meats, seafood, etc.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Autumnmist, your order would have to be 29 items or fewer for the the Peapod delivery charge ($6.95) and fuel surcharge (.48 on my last order) to add 25 cents to each item.

Don't forget to factor in that with Peapod you pay the Lake Zurich sales tax, not the Chicago sales tax.

Stephen, I didn't feel guilty leaving the Hens and Chicks because I didn't go to the floral department with that intention at all. If I was that sort of person, I would have dumped it on the nearest grocery shelf. It just became clear after a minute of talking with no action that I would rather leave than wade through a different outcome. Maybe I'm spoiled by Peapod, but Peapod never, ever questions a return. They don't make you exchange. They don't ask for proof that an item wasn't fresh or that you didn't receive it. They just ask you if you want a refund, or a credit on your next order (I choose the latter). That sort of attitude makes me doubly willing to spend money (as my Peapod expenditures will attest). At TI, while I was talking with the woman in floral, I had $123.40-worth of groceries waiting -- with my daughter -- for me at the checkout. I think securing my future loyalty would have been worth a 25-cent pot.

If you count this as stealing, it's the first thing I've ever stolen in my life.

autumnmist said...

elizabeth - Peapod's delivery charge is $9.95 if you spend <$75.

autumnmist said...

Whoops, didn't finish my comment. Also, I very very rarely have anywhere near 29 items in my Peapod order... It's a very different situation if you are shopping for a family (you mention a daughter) than if you are shopping for two or one.

Famac said...

Am I the only person in Hyde Park that eats mostly out of cans?

On the dropped plant issue: I think most grocery stores absorb items destroyed in the store as a cost-of-doing-business.

Its not out of generosity, I'm sure it turns into a he-said-she-said - or the person simply walks away from the accident.

Exchanging the entire plant for another was probably the optimal solution for all. Or you could have offered to buy the broken plant, and the manager/cashier probably would have let you off the hook.

You tried to save your plant purchase (probably because you spent time picking the best one)and encountered some hourly staff in a new store while under time pressure.

I don't thik Treasure Island is able to select flourists out of the $7.50 employee pool without a big pile of good luck. They have to train what they get and hope they stay.

Stephen said...

Elizabeth, my post came across much harsher than intended. My apology. I certainly didn't mean to suggest you were stealing. My comment on guilt was really meant tongue in cheek - again, my apology for any offense.

SR said...

Is Peapod really the comparison to make though? I used to explain about how expensive the Coop was to non-Hyde Parkers by saying that it was "no cheaper than Peapod", and their eyes would get big.

I saw some pretty good sales at TI when I visited last weekend, and they are carrying basic groceries along with the organic and specialty stuff, so that's good. But I think lower income people in the neighborhood are still probably stuck with Village Foods as their main grocery store. We'll still be doing our bi-weekly Dominicks runs for the bulk of our groceries due to the lower prices, anyway.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I can't get over this broken pot thing, now that Hyde and Stephen have wagged their fingers at me (I lost sleep over it), so I'm going to write to Randy Cohen, the NYTimes Ethicist. I'll let you know if he answers.

Here's the thing: it woudn't have even occurred to me to go back for a new plant or pot if I had broken it after paying for it. I think I assume that the items belong to the store (and accidents are a cost of business) until you buy them. And I also assume that china shops post the "you break, you buy" policy because it's implicitly the opposite in most businesses. But are those assumptions correct? (Where is KHS when I need her?)

famac is right that the optimal scenario would have been to offer to the cashier to pay for it, and to have her insist on replacing it with a perfect model.

Autumnmist, agreed, Peapod makes a lot of sense for large families, and not much sense for one or two people. We have six people in my family.

erith1 said...

Regarding the flower pot, I would say this:

I wouldn't expect the store to replace a flower pot that I broke, but if they had, I would have been impressed. That is, replacing the pot would have seemed to me going above and beyond.

The situation as described sounds to me like no harm, no foul other than a missed opportunity to win customers. A manager or other higher up would probably have handled it differently. I wouldn't expect the average wage worker to always think of the big picture the way a business owner would. She was probably worried she would have to pay for the pot if she gave you a new one.

khs said...

I would never dream of asking a customer to pay for something broken or spilled (even after paying for it) before they have left one of my stores – many have offered but I’ve never taken them up on it. That being said, I imagine it’s difficult to train hourly employees on all the possible scenarios that might arise and with a place as large as TI (I have enough trouble with far less) there are many new employees who just don’t know what to do in a situation like that. Unless an item is deliberately damaged I would agree that it’s just the cost of doing business – as the 25cent pot proves that it’s not worth the bad will it could possibly generate.

I too am a frequent peapod shopper. I’ve always found the prices to be competitive and with two small children the cost of the delivery convenience is so worth it. Quite honestly I have had no desire to even set foot in TI until they’ve settled in a bit. I know that initially they are trying to appear competitive by meeting or beating HPP prices because they’ve been shopping and writing down prices there for weeks. I also know from many of my vendors who have dealt with other TI stores that they have a history of being slow to pay and not paying until they are “cut off” (sound familiar?) So let’s hold judgment on all fronts until they’ve established themselves and show what a TI shopping experience will really be like long term.

Raymond said...

And, let's not forget that Certified is the supplier for Treasure Island, too, (or at least I seem to remember reading that somewhere), as they were for the Co-op. So TI may not be able to provide a massively higher product level, even if they wanted to.

For the record, Elizabeth, I think you are ethically in the clear on the flower pot. But, "Fresh Express?" Frankly, you struck me as a mesclun greens kind of person! :)

chicago pop said...

As a simple thought-experiment, let's replace Elizabeth's potted plant with a 60" Hitachi plasma TV (retail $7,000).

You break, you buy? Or, "Let me get you another one!"

-The Ethicist

Stephen said...

Not sure the potted plant is an "ethics" issue, as much as an "etiquette" issue. At any rate, this isn't the first blog to debate the "pay, don't pay" quandary: http://ninepounddictator.blogspot.com/2007/12/do-you-have-to-pay.html

Zig & Lou said...

"I don't think Treasure Island is able to select florists out of the $7.50 employee pool without a big pile of good luck. They have to train what they get and hope they stay."

"Train what they get"? They interview and hire the employees that work in the store, they are not gulag slave labor.

Hire well and keep training.

bornatreese said...

I will buy cans and peanut butter at Village Foods; tofu, produce, eggs, milk, and the awesome cannoli at HP Produce; cute foodie items and bulk at TI; on-sale bargains (frozen veggies, oatmeal, dried beans) at One Stop at 43rd & Lake Park; and peaches and tomatoes in summer in Harper Court--if the farmer market's still there.

Peter Rossi said...

tempest in a terracotta pot?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Chicago Pop, the $7,000 TV is not the best example, because stores have insurance against that sort of loss and I truly wouldn't have to pay in that case (unless I took a hammer to it maliciously).

Raymond, I made a great spinach salad out of that baby spinach.

rdb said...

I've been concerned from the beginning about prices at TI. I shopped there occasionally when I lived on the N Side. Once Whole Foods came in, I don't think I set foot in a TI again. But TI was never a 1st choice grocery store for staples. Now that I have a 5-year old whose primary diet consists of toaster strudel and plain chicken tenderloins, I save even more shopping at Jewel and Dominick's over a fancy grocery store. I worry TI will be stuck in that bad middle where retailers go to die -- not cheap enough to attract the high volume of value shoppers and not nice enough to beat out the highest end retailers like Whole Foods.

Paradise said...

People always expect their maids to pay for stuff they break. I think its just a yuppie thing, where every one in their service has to pay, but they deserve to be taken care of.

Summer said...

Thanks elizabeth for the information on the new TI. I did not expect to shop there, except to find some speciality items that I can not find at Jewel or Dominick's. But if it is the same as the co-op maybe not. I was looking forward to having the store as a back up, but I guess I may still have to go to the north side to maybe find those itmes.

Lauren said...

I shopped at TI today - the first time I'd been in the Co-Op building since I moved to Hyde Park a year and a half ago. I only shopped at the Co-Op on one occasion and thought it was rather gross to be so pricey.

I still think it looks a little depressing, so I'm hoping that things will perk up in a month or so. I love HP Produce, but it will be nice to buy chicken breast that isn't $11 per pound. I'm counting on you, TI...

I was also shopping at Village Foods on 51st across from the Kenwood Academy. The fruits and veggies selection is pathetic, but the goods are not too expensive, and you can find what you need in a pinch. It is also has very long hours which is great (6am to midnight, I think).

Lilithcat said...

Your comparison of Peapod and TI is wrong. Setting aside the unfair comparison of sale/non-sale items, there are six items left - and it's a 50-50 split - Peapod was less expensive for three and more expensive for three.

I will continue to buy (most of) my produce at HPP - it's better and less expensive, but why, oh why? don't they have small onions (not in bags)?

I am pleased that TI carries Twinings Lapsang Souchong tea bags, as the Co-op was about the only place I could get those. However, the amount of pasta at TI is ridiculous. The ethnic food aisle now has a greatly reduced level of non-Italian foods.

And, no, you should not have expected the floral department to replace the pot you broke.

Richard Gill said...

I love reading all the comments comparing Treasure Island, Hyde Park Produce, Village, Peapod, Jewel, Costco, et al. The comments all radiate the existence of consumer choice. Competition - yes! Good stores will compete or die. The Co-op died.

As for TI, I can't wait for their remodeling to be done. I have a feeling we ain't seen nothin' yet.