Amid strike, Stop & Shop competitors see demand spike

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Considering McQuade's Marketplace in Mystic placed its Easter orders a month and a half or two in advance, manager Ed Laplante was finding it difficult to get more ham and lamb.

With increased demand from usual Stop & Shop customers declining to cross the picket line, Laplante estimates his store ordered 40 percent more ham and lamb this year.

A steady stream of customers passed through the five open cashier lanes on Friday morning, and Laplante said the Westerly location of McQuade's is even busier, given its location between the Westerly and Pawcatuck Stop & Shop stores.

"A lot of people were surprised at how competitively priced we are compared to Stop & Shop," Laplante said. While he feels for the striking workers, he acknowledges it's nice for an independent grocer like McQuade's to get a boost and hopes the store can retain new customers.

Whether it's McQuade's, Big Y, ShopRite, ALDI or Tri-Town Foods, local grocery stores are seeing increased pressure — to bring in more employees, offer more overtime and stock more food — because of the Stop & Shop strike.

"We've added staff — including everyone from extra cashiers on the front end to inventory support behind the scenes," ShopRite spokesperson Karen O'Shea said in an email. "We are doing everything we can as quickly as we can to service shoppers in Connecticut. We appreciate the patience of our customers and the community as we work to get through this together."

The 31,000 workers in stores across Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have been on strike since 1 p.m. on April 11, the result of a contract dispute over health care, pension benefits and wages.

The pressure is even greater now, as the Easter weekend is one of the busiest of the year.

Stop & Shop spokesperson Jennifer Brogan said Friday afternoon the company had not yet decided on Easter hours. She added that Stop & Shop has donated Easter baskets, toys and candy to the Toy Closet program at Yale New Haven Hospital, Bridgeport Rescue Mission, The Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport and the New Haven Fire Department.

Big Y and ALDI are closed on Easter.

ALDI said in an email statement, "We are excited to welcome new customers and loyal ALDI fans alike. The ALDI shopping experience is designed to make life easier for people and to offer high-quality food at affordable prices."

In Groton, a Big Y employee commented mid-day Friday that he suspected more than half the customers in the store were Stop & Shop regulars. At that time, nine of the store's 11 cashier lanes were open.

"The parking lot is crazy, but inside, they have so many cashiers, so the lines are good," Mystic resident Marge Allyn said after shopping at Big Y on Friday. She usually does her regular shopping at Stop & Shop and only goes to Big Y for the sales.

Replies to The Day via Facebook and email indicate that for many, the choice of grocery store is not a haphazard or interchangeable one, but one based on a mix of convenience, price, freshness of produce, and relationships built with employees over time.

Waterford resident Allison Keck has been a loyal Stop & Shop customer for years, but she doesn't like the produce at the ALDI or Walmart near her, so she drives 20 minutes to the Big Y in Groton.

While she said the prices "aren't that bad," several others said Big Y is too expensive.

Fellow Waterford resident Michelle Gallerani said Friday she doesn't "even want to think about doing my regular shopping tomorrow for the week on the Saturday before Easter," when it seems like all of Waterford and New London is in ShopRite.

When the strike began, she thought it would be over by last weekend, but she ended up shopping at ShopRite last weekend and found it "was not at all enjoyable."

Day care provider Tara Crossley said her two clients on strike are "exhausted, stressed out, and riddled with anxiety not knowing how this will end." An avid supporter of the strike, she brought donuts to Stop & Shop workers, while Vicki DeGunia said her Girl Scout troop sent over cold cuts, bread and condiments.

On Facebook, Beckah Donehay noted she has altered recipes because she couldn't make a convenient stop after work and has gone without a gas discount, but called this "a minor inconvenience to support our friends as they are suffering greatly during this time."

Corina Bellone acknowledged that she bought three $5 hams at Stop & Shop, saying it "doesn't mean we don't support what they want to strike for," but her budget "can't handle unnecessary driving or overpriced groceries elsewhere."

e.moser@theday.com

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