The selling begins outside the front door, where the signs in the window scream their message. Any American can understand the pitch: "Buy it! Buy it while it lasts. Buy it now and save it for later. Just buy it."
"Fifteen percent discount -- Del Monte vegetables," one sign shouts, red letters towering 4 feet high in the window. "Half-price special on Giant Butter Added White Bread," another implores. "Regularly 93 cents, now 46 cents a loaf (limit six per customer, please)."
The door hisses open, the store inside exerting a magnetic pull. It ushers you in from the muggy heat, or the cold rain, out of a world that can't be depended on.
Through the doors you go, delivered into a place that's constant, a climate-controlled, brightly lighted, color-splashed buying arcade that promises the best of everything: abundance, freshness, savings, quality and care.
This is the meticulously planned and compulsively maintained world of Giant Food Store No. 203 in Dorsey's Search Village Center, Columbia. Store 203, among Giant's newer and bigger stores at 56,000 square feet, is a showcase for the company's operating style and the work of its nearly 27,000 employees -- or "associates," in proper Giantspeak -- in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
For Bill Marriott, manager of Store 203, the show begins at 7:30 each morning when he arrives. Mr. Marriott's first order of business is to check his mailbag, the day's instructions from headquarters in Landover. Nearly everything that goes on in the store reflects the detailed, time-tested operating script written in Landover, so Mr. Marriott's primary role is stage director: to make sure his 200-plus employees remember their lines and don't bump into the furniture.
When the script is followed to a T, the store does its job remarkably well: It sells -- almost $675,000 in sales a week.
And no one in the Baltimore-Washington market sells better than Giant Food Inc. At last count, Giant's 151 stores rang up nearly 40 cents of every dollar spent on groceries in this market -- $3.25 billion in all during fiscal 1990, which ended in February. The closest competitor was Safeway Stores Inc., with nearly 21 percent of the market, according to Food World, a local $l grocery-trade publication. After Safeway, no competitor reaches 6 percent.
Partly because of that market domination, Giant's profits are equally astounding: In an industry where less than 1.25 percent profit is the norm, Giant earns 3.33 cents on every dollar, or $108.4 million last year. (Only one publicly traded grocery chain in the nation earns more per dollar than Giant -- Weis Markets Inc. in Sunbury, Pa., with a profit rate of 6.97 percent of last year's sales, resulting in part from a large and productive securities portfolio.)
And partly because of its high profits and dominant market position, Giant struggles against a reputation for high prices. Without strong competitors, its critics charge, Giant is able to jack up prices at will. Just look at their profit margins, the detractors say.
Giant's response? That's a bum rap, or words to that effect. The company's high profits come from a marketing and operating strategy that is the envy of the industry, the company explains.
The strategy includes spending millions on catering to Giant's customers and bolstering its public image, while searching obsessively under every cushion for nickel-and-dime savings.
It involves a willingness to test and develop new store features and cutting-edge technology, even at the risk of some costly, failed experiments.
It means weaning itself away from some high-cost suppliers and becoming self-sufficient in areas such as advertising, real estate development and construction, carpentry, maintenance and even food manufacturing.
And, though Giant's top officers are expected to get the job done whatever way they see fit, the lower-level managers and employees have to live their lives, to the smallest detail, by the book.
Back at Store 203, the book says that trucks bringing today's non-perishable groceries from the warehouses in Landover and Jessup have to arrive by 6 p.m. the day before, rather than after 10 p.m., which is the case for most other stores.
Dorsey's Search is in a "quiet zone" -- no deliveries allowed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Stock clerks working the graveyard shift unload the trucks starting about midnight. Produce and other perishables arrive about 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. in refrigerated trucks, or "reefers," and are unloaded and stocked right away. Large stores such as 203 receive shipments of food every day.
Charles Noranbrock, the store's receiver, counts every cart and every tray that arrives, checking them against invoices. Unlike many grocers, Giant's carts roll onto the trucks in the warehouses and right out again into the store aisles, eliminating forklifts on all but produce deliveries.