Greetings and Prayers for Gelson’s
Déjà vu — the feeling that you have already experienced something that is actually happening for the first time.
Under the glare of the Walmart style fluorescent lights I ambled along. The clank of carts, smell of freshly hosed down vegetables. Yep, ice cream is still on isle 4. Listerine, aisle 6. I’ve been here before. But I haven’t. Albertson’s? Haggen? Nope, I was at the new Gelson’s in South Laguna.
Dang. I so wanted to have a different experience with the opening of Gelson’s. As has become my custom with grocery store openings, I wore comfortable shoes and sported a clean haircut. A cup of black coffee in hand along with my list, I patted my dog, kissed my wife and headed to the store. Grocery stores are a wonderland. I love them. They have everything you could want or need in one place. I looked forward to this one. I have always liked Gelson’s. The shopping experience while more expensive is pleasurable. On occasion when you don’t have a good idea for dinner you can get a prepared meal at Gelson’s and even eat it at the store in front of their fireplace.
I met store manager Timothy Muleady, new to Gelson’s himself, freshly hired eight weeks ago. Muleady, a very nice guy, stood proud of the Gelson’s market position. Which he explained is excellent customer service, attractive shopping environments, and unique goods on their shelves. Local shoppers who would use this store for routine groceries may be sad to learn of the high prices in trade for superior customer service. I asked him what he would say to Laguna Beach families or those on fixed incomes who simply yearn for a grocery store with fair pricing. “Just shop the sales” was the advice. Indeed throughout the store there were sale items with reduced prices. In my opinion, the prices were reduced from a high price to an average price. Probably no savings from the average retail price. Muleady described his store prices as “competitive.”
Last May, in my column regarding Haggen’s grand opening and prices, I said, “perhaps you don’t mind spending higher prices for groceries, but I think you would prefer to shop at Gelson’s, which with its attractive upscale store at least gives the impression that you are getting your money’s worth.”
Haggen’s high prices and unimproved store had customers seeking shopping alternatives elsewhere. My opinion was that the shopping experience in an upscale amenity filled Gelson’s could make you forgive the high prices. My major disappointment is that the new Gelson’s store is “as is.”
Of the three points where Gelson’s excels, customer service, unique variety of goods and attractive store interiors, this store hits the bulls-eye only on customer service. Gelson’s fell a little short on the famed variety of goods in comparison to the other Gelson’s down the street. I will say that the quality of their poke (raw ahi served as an appetizer in Hawaiian cuisine) is as good as our favorite enjoyed on Oahu’s North Shore. Lastly, in the category of store environment, not only did they miss the bulls-eye, they missed the target altogether. Muleady acknowledged that it would another six months to a year before they could begin to remodel the store. “We wanted to get the store open,” he said, explaining that Gelson’s had acquired a number of new stores and thus would have to improve the store over time.
Haggen confronted similar circumstances; a small successful grocery store chain seized an opportunity to expand by acquiring a number of new stores. This is a big task. A point of failure with Haggen was not having the resources to establish their brand when they opened. Gelson’s has a well-established look and environment in their stores, and has also has failed to capitalize on their brand. It is possibly their biggest asset. Would McDonald’s acquire an old Taco Bell and just start making hamburgers, leaving the building to improve later? It’s hard to think of a chain of anything where the adage “don’t build it and they will come” is a good plan.
I want Gelson’s to be successful. I wish they had taken the time to get its store in order, literally, before they opened. Without the beautiful environment and full array of unique goods, what remains are high prices and customer service. Will this be okay with Laguna shoppers, who may have new grocery store fatigue? As time passes, shopping habits change as former shoppers at Albertson’s and Haggen discover other options in the area. Gelson’s has the burden of winning back customers to this location.
I am not a grocery store critic, just a shopper like you. Unfortunately, this shopper is having déjà vu all over again.
Roderick Reed owns REEDesign Interiors in Laguna Beach. He lives in town with his wife Kathy and two sons Mason and Jack. http://roderickreed.com/.