Editorial: Brand names may be replaceable, but you are not

Although it took almost two years, Covid-19 finally caught up to me in late 2021. Like my daughter said, “Dad, you got Covid for Christmas.” Certainly not the best timing, but thankfully I had a very mild case and my symptoms were more like the flu than those experienced by so many of our members. The Omicron variant caused and even more massive spread of the virus through our membership and staff than any previous variant. Unfortunately, we know that many of you have lost friends and loved ones over the last year and we want to express our deepest condolences for your loss. I am not 100% optimistic that Covid is behind us yet, but I am hopeful that if there is (God forbid) another variant, it could be milder than Omicron was, and maybe, JUST MAYBE, we can start to get back to some degree of normalcy; whatever that even means nowadays.

As we shovel ourselves through another Winter, we are hopeful that the huge number of open jobs in your stores start to fill up again and that people keep coming back into the workforce. The number of people that have jumped from job to job, especially in our industry, has caused many employers to sit back and consider if they are doing enough to maintain their employees. The Great Resignation certainly caused some of the more difficult and uncooperative employers out there to act differently, didn’t it? It caused non-union operators to start offering new employment packages that bared striking resemblance to your Union contracts. I’ve seen plenty of warehouses and production facilities offering signing bonuses for new employees. We’ve also heard cases where companies are giving unscheduled “retention bonuses” to help them keep key their management positions filled. In many cases employers need to worry more about labor shortages now than they do about supply chain disruptions.

I am proud to say that across our area we have continued to see strong support for our essential workforce. That continued support is something that makes your Union leadership team very happy. Throughout the pandemic our team has told every elected official and reporter that we spoke to that this newfound respect for our members needs to continue long after the pandemic ends. There have always been obvious examples of our members and their employers stepping up to support their communities during a crisis or time of need. However, this pandemic has caused a two-year behavior modification across the board, from owners to customers, that was inclusive of everyone in between.

I’m wondering if you have noticed something that I have recently. Customers don’t look at brand names and labels the same way they used to. So many households were forced to try different brands or shop at different stores because their typical go to choices weren’t available. As much as your employers probably enjoyed the financial benefits that came with selling off huge lots of private label and store brand product lines that could come with interesting repercussions. Couple that with operators having to bring in brands that they don’t normally carry just to have product to sell, and the issue gets a little deeper. At the time, and even still to a degree now, it was the only choice you employers had. The customers demanded something to buy, so your employers got them whatever they could, from wherever they could buy it. This situation could prove to be more relevant after the pandemic ends and the supply chain disruptions fade away.

You cannot forget that there are multiple competitors that operate in the non-national or discount brand space all around your stores. Whether you think about Aldi, Lidl or the variety of dollar store and discount chains out there, they’re all similar. They all make their living convincing your customers that they don’t have to buy those well-known national brands anymore. These operators want your customer base to believe the mantra they sell; the brands they sell are just as good, if not better, but at a significant discount. That is something that many household shoppers may relate to now more than before. Whether it was the months of buying store and off brand products without complaints from their families or the savings realized at the register this behavior change could be more than temporary.

Take a few seconds to think about what one of the biggest operators in our space, Costco, has managed to do over the last decade or so. Obviously, Costco is a different business model than any of the employers that I mentioned, but they do act similarly. Costco sells more Kirkland products than you may even realize. They have taken the time to build a massive, category crossing, private label brand that their customers not only trust, but buy and rely on every day. Now it may be a while before a top PGA golfer is on TV hitting a Kirkland golf ball down the fairway, but how many of you reading this article have at least one Kirkland product in your place? How many of those products have replaced a national brand item that you used to buy, you handle in your own store and your employer needs to sell? Do you realize how much higher their profit margin is on their own brand? It’s a massive financial advantage.

With inflation conversations dominating the news and the prices for everything, especially cars and gasoline, rising steadily every week, more customers that wouldn’t usually buy what the discounters are selling may be forced to take another look. Some customers that did what they had to do to feed their family during the pandemic will happily go back to the national brands. But some others may have already decided that the items they bought because they had no choice, are now the new permanent brands for their family. It doesn’t take that much convincing to try something different if you have no other choice, but after a while that new choice could transition to the new norm.

Once again, we come back to the one thing that has ALWAYS been the advantage over the competition for your employers, YOU. It’s all about your product knowledge, your customer service, and your long history of doing the right thing for your customers. You have burned so many candles at both ends working throughout the pandemic that a manic pace has become the new norm for you. For almost 2 years you have worked longer and harder than ever before. You have sacrificed your bodies and minds. You have stood tall and delivered in stores where at times it was like a bomb cyclone met a month-long Thanksgiving Day sale that also included Can-Can (for my ShopRite folks). Somehow you did the job, and with less help than you ever had to work with before. You figured out how to get it done without planograms or a how-to manual. You just did what you always do, except at ridiculous speeds and with more than double the effort.

You cannot allow this to become the new norm for you. As the industry hopefully starts to look a little more like it did pre-Covid, you need to as well. There is nothing but pride in our hearts for all you have done, but your communities and your elected officials should be looking for more ways to say thank you for your efforts. I think the time has come for the decision makers to show some extra love to those essential workers that helped society get through it all. Not that we didn’t appreciate the hugs, applause, and proclamations, but let’s face it, there are millions of dollars earmarked for essential workers under the American Rescue Plan that have yet to find their way to your pockets. The money was distributed to the States from the Federal government to distribute as they saw fit and to date it none has been allocated to you. Now is when you should remind all the local and state elected officials, democrats, and republicans of how hard you worked and that the time has come for you to get your fair share. Our lobbyists will continue to work on your behalf, but it is your vote they need, so it’s your voice that will be heard. Remind your elected officials that nobody works for free, especially not your vote!

Thank you for all that you do every day and thank you for entrusting me with the honor of being your President. You have my commitment that we will continue to work hard to provide you the best wages, strongest benefit packages, and the safest working environments in the industry. Over the last few years we have accomplished a great deal together but there is much left to do. We will be with you this year more than ever, organizing, enforcing and negotiating contracts, finding new ways to provide you the best service, raising money for charity, and trying to find pro-worker candidates that we can proudly support. No matter who they are, you can be sure if they have our support, they will represent your best interests in the hallowed halls of the state capital and in all the legislative chambers throughout the state.