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Slimantics: Cordial chaos: The story I am not allowed to tell

 

Slim Smith

 

On Aug. 5, we published a story on the renovations currently being made at the Kroger store on Highway 45. 

 

I didn't write that story, nor was it the story I had hoped to write. 

 

But in this age when more and more companies consider information, like inventory, something to be managed, there are some stories that cannot be told, or at least cannot be told in the way the story-teller had envisioned. 

 

There was nothing wrong with the story we did publish, of course. All the relevant facts were there. 

 

But in this case, stating the facts doesn't tell the story. 

 

What is happening at Kroger is a fascinating example of how something as seemingly mundane as a grocery store can actually become a relationship. It is brand loyalty at its best. 

 

That is the part of the story that corporate restraints prevent me from telling. Rather, it prevents me from telling the story from the perspective of those whose efforts are most critical in forming this unexpected bond: The employees of the Highway 45 Kroger. 

 

That was my intention. I called story manager Jimmy Woodruff and told him I'd like to hear what it's been like since the renovations began inside the story a couple of weeks ago. 

 

He politely declined and referred me to the media relations person at the corporate office in Memphis.  

 

It was this person who supplied the basic information contained in Tuesday's story, the one I didn't want to write. 

 

What the media relations person couldn't tell me was what it's like to be there as shoppers scurry like ants in ant hill that somebody jabbed a stick into. He couldn't explain to me why the staff seemed happy to help customers navigate the chaos that so massive a renovation naturally entails. He couldn't explain the smiles and the genial disposition of both the staff and the customers. He couldn't tell me how it was that a major disruption could produce the effect of actually strengthening the bonds between the store and its customers. 

 

What is happening at Kroger defies reason. There are few things more frustrating than having no clue where half the items on your shopping list are located. There is nothing inspiring about trying to navigate down a particularly narrow aisle looking for something that might not even be there only to discover that you are stuck in a grocery-cart traffic jam. 

 

But even under these conditions, you don't sense that customers and staff are dismayed. It is not like your average trip to Walmart where it's always been my impression that the people there, workers and customers alike, maintained the posture of a shift-change at a 1920s coal mine -- grim-faced people, anxious to get in and get out as fast as possible. 

 

There is no doubt the Kroger staff is largely responsible for the calm cordiality that persists through all these inconveniences, I thought. 

 

But I also thought that maybe it's just that Kroger has a different sort of customer to begin with. 

 

Not wanting to run afoul of corporate policy, I approached a customer to consider this possibility.  

 

Jack and Sarah Crowley have been shopping at Kroger's even before the store opened at the current location 20 years ago.  

 

"We shopped there when it was on Highway 82, and when the store opened over here, we started shopping here," said Jack, 82. 

 

"We may go somewhere else every now and then, but we do all our grocery shopping here," said Sarah, 78. 

 

Neither of the Crowleys find the recent inconveniences anything to fret over. 

 

"Oh, gosh, no," Sarah said. "Even with all the construction, I haven't had any trouble. There's always (a staffer) around to tell you where to find what you're looking for." 

 

For Jack, who spent 40 years in construction, watching the renovation is entertaining. 

 

"Man, they've got some good people doing this thing. You can tell," he said. 

 

Sarah says an temporary inconveniences are tempered by the anticipation of what lies ahead. 

 

"I can hardly wait to see it," she said. "It's going to be really nice." 

 

The Crowleys's attitude seems to be the prevailing one among the customers I see when I shop at Kroger (I divide my shopping between Kroger and Sunflower, which also has a neighborly vibe happening.). 

 

Right now, the project is still in the demolition stage, so the confusion is likely to have reached its apex. Soon, order will form from the chaos and it's clear the ambitious plan to maintain regular hours while simultaneously making major renovations has not chased away customers in big numbers. 

 

What we don't see behind the smiles of the Kroger employees is the hard work that pulling off this feat must require. Corporate officials may rightfully be credited with forming the plan, committing to the $3 million investment and organizing the project, but it is Woodruff, his management team, cashiers, stock people, baggers and butchers who have made the plan work with such unexpected grace. I hope those efforts are someday recognized and rewarded. 

 

That is the story I would have written if the Kroger corporate officials had permitted it. I am sure there are any number of valid reasons why Kroger's policy does not permit this sort of thing, although I have yet to think of one. 

 

So I will not be able to write that story. 

 

I'll just have to be satisfied with this one, I guess.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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