Jack Brown can still remember the hours following John F. Kennedy's televised Cuban Missile Crisis speech in 1962, which was punctuated by the Cold War threat of nuclear retaliation. Brown, the current chief executive of 156-unit Stater Bros. Markets, was at that time working in a Southern California independent supermarket as an assistant manager.
"After the speech, we were bombarded with shoppers who bought up all the sugar, coffee, canned meats, butter and other items," he told me recently. "What they bought were all the items that were rationed during World War II because they remembered that period."
Jack said he doesn't sense a similar panic among today's shoppers as the nation mobilizes for possible war with Iraq. Nevertheless, Jack and other U.S. supermarket executives are getting ready. They are preparing for possible changes in shopping patterns in the event of a conflict, and are gearing up to support employees who are called to duty.
What should supermarkets and shoppers expect if a war gets under way? I was asked to discuss that topic last week for a CNN television interview (the segment hasn't yet aired as of this writing). Based on my conversations with retailers and a review of SN's Gulf War coverage, in the early days of a conflict people would gather 'round television sets in the evenings with family to watch the news. That means more dinners at home, reduced in-store traffic on weekday evenings, and probably more comfort foods. Barring terrorist activity here, few retailers expect to see panic buying. But undoubtedly shoppers will stock up on staples such as bottled water, flashlights and canned goods.
A short conflict shouldn't cause significant out-of-stocks at retail. For instance, Grocery Manufacturers of America is saying that a war lasting three or four weeks shouldn't lead to import disruptions or price increases because items are already in the pipeline. An extended war, particularly one that impacts shipping lanes, could change that picture. The longer the duration, the more likely oil prices would rise and distribution costs would increase.
What can supermarkets do at a time like this? Certainly retailers should make sure they are in-stock on staples and emergency-pack items. This is also a time to show support for employees called to service (which isn't the same thing as supporting a war). Many retailers are extending compensation plans to support these employees.
Let's return to the case of Stater, where some 40 associates have already been tapped for service and up to 225 could get the call. The Colton, Calif.-based retailer will pay these employees' families the differential between their weekly military pay and their average weekly compensation. Stater will continue medical benefits for families, keep the clock running for vacation time accrual, and guarantee the same job upon an employee's return. The retailer is also facilitating a program of letter writing to associates serving duty.
A Stater correspondence to its more than 14,000 associates outlined these policies and included a 1961 photo of Jack Brown of the Pacific Fleet in his navy uniform. It incorporates this wording: "Many of us have served in earlier times to defend America and stand ready to support our armed forces of today."
Supermarkets have a history of supporting their communities and the nation in difficult times. That commitment may be tested again.