Anytime is shopping time

Night: Supermarkets are incorporating the 24-7 concept in an effort to appear more service-oriented.

February 17, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Jennifer Kalista fills her cart with ground beef, paper towels and other staples of family life. Brian Sutton buys toiletries. He's on his way home from work, running one of those errands that men run for their wives.

A few minutes later, Skip Schirmer comes along and picks up a frozen pizza -- Tombstone Original -- along with a cold Pepsi and a bottle of Advil.

Ah, dinner time.

Except that it's 1: 30. As in 1: 30 in the morning.

"This is what I normally do," says Schirmer, stopping at the Timonium Super Fresh after working the second shift at a northern Baltimore County printing company. "Some nights I do pizza. Some nights I get the stuff to do a regular full-blown dinner.

"Now," he says, "there's quite a selection of 24-hour stores."

His choice on this winter night is the newly opened Super Fresh, a supermarket that keeps up with industry trends by keeping late hours.

Time was, it seemed that only milkmen, paperboys and bakers worked while the world slept. But grocery stores, especially those in major markets, have embraced the benefits of staying open all night.

Convenience counts, and the doors never close. The Super Fresh is an after-hours club for bar hoppers, shift workers and other creatures of the night.

"The kids are asleep, so I can go do my shopping," says Juanita Clay, who is at Register 3 at a time when most folks are sound asleep. "During the day I work, so this is the best time."

For some, shopping after midnight is driven by circumstances. Kalista -- the woman with the cart full of red meat, apple juice and other all-American groceries -- is on a $135.12, midnight shopping excursion because her car is in the shop. She had to wait for her mother to come home from work, agree to baby-sit for her 4-year-old son and lend her her car.

"One car, two drivers -- it makes it kind of hectic," the 26-year-old Lutherville woman says. But then she nods in approval at the wide-open spaces. The aisles are clear, save for employees stocking shelves.

`No crowds'

"Actually, it is the best time to come to the grocery store," she says. "No crowds."

For anyone more accustomed to the rugby scrum that is daytime grocery shopping, the supermarket in the wee hours is almost otherworldly in its eerie calm.

Take a number for the deli? It's not even open.

Elbow your way to the salad bar? It's closed, too.

Jockey for the shortest check-out line? Most of the time, only one register is open. And there is no line.

"I like working at night. It's more peaceful," says cashier Margie Perkey. "During the day, it's a madhouse."

In the Baltimore area, Giant Food Inc. set the trend for 24-hour stores, says Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a supermarket trade journal. He says huge sales aren't really the point.

"If you're open 24 hours, you are potentially creating the impression that you are service-oriented," he says.

Super Fresh officials say most of its new, large stores -- the 56,000-square-foot Timonium store is part of a push to open up to 200 stores -- are open 24 hours.

After all, many stores have employees restocking shelves overnight.

Staffed anyway

"It's not like you have to turn on the lights and the power," says Andrew Carrano, a vice president for Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., parent company of the Super Fresh division. "That's happening anyway because you have people in the store."

Leon Mullennax, a longtime night manager in the Super Fresh chain who came out of semiretirement to help open the Timonium store, says the new location is tame compared with the all-night rave that the Super Fresh in Hampden could be. There, a steady stream of students from the Johns Hopkins University nearby -- and shoppers with inhibitions dulled by alcohol -- could sometimes liven up the early morning.

In Timonium, the store's graveyard shift toils in an oddly hushed arena. The quiet pushes the elevator music to the foreground.

Calvin Waker is shelving large canisters of vegetable shortening when he identifies the sounds of "Black Magic Woman," Santana's rock classic -- "the soft version," he quickly adds.

"They call it elevator music," he says, "because it lets you down."

The overnight shift begins in earnest about midnight, when the first of the couple of dozen of late, late shoppers arrive.

Among those is Joyce Miller, a nurse, and no stranger to odd hours. After work, she stops at the Super Fresh and buys five Oven Stuffer Roasters (57 cents per pound, on sale).

"I'm looking for the biggest chickens I can get that make good broth," she says.

By 2 a.m., the store has one shopper, a man who has concluded a late shift at the recycling center near Cockeysville. He leaves, and no customers arrive until almost 3 a.m., when a student returning from a studio session at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, buys frozen pasta entrees for the next day's lunch.

The work continues. Gary Rose is in a room behind the meat counter, trimming sandwich steaks and roasts from cuts of sirloin tip. The room is clammy, blanketed with the odor of blood.

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