Smoking in supermarkets

America can be a wonderful place, especially when you're looking for a fresh lobster at three in the morning. Run out of brie for a midnight feast ? Just pop along to Big Star, and the world is your oyster. Or fresh lobster.

I fell in love with this leviathan of American consumerism as soon as it swept away the old A&P near my home. It was soooo excessive. 30 different packages of milk were available - low-fat, no-fat, a-bit-more-fat, chocolate- flavoured, acidophilous, sterilised, one-pint, two-pint, half-gallon, one- gallon, and all the permutations. So one day when I was getting my weekly workout by walking all the way round the mix-n-match salad bar, I was particularly annoyed to see a fat old businessman holding a lighted cigar in the same hand that held his bowl, and dropping ash in half the salads. I was about to say something withering about his smoking in a supermarket when I realised that I'd never seen a no-smoking sign, and, ever aware that I was a guest in a foreign culture (hard to forget, in fact), I held my tongue, remembering that The Land Of Freedom is sometimes considered to be an abbreviation of The Land of Freedom To Be Thoroughly Obnoxious And Selfish. Indeed, as the number one producer of tobacco in the US, North Carolina did indeed allow smoking in most shops. Still, as I left I noticed a pile of complaint forms (sorry, suggestion forms), and returned one with the following letter :
"Dear Mr. Big-Star, I must congratulate you on the opening of your Chapel Hill store. I do think it's very important that we small-town dwellers should share the opportunity to buy fresh lobster 24 hours a day, and I have been delighted that you've now made this possible. However, I do wonder about your smoking policy. Don't you think that it would give you an edge over the competition if we could shop in a healthy, smoke-free atmosphere ? I for one was discouraged from browsing your salad bar today because of the unhealthy environment caused by a reckless smoker. Yours etc."

I expected no reply (hence the tongue-in-cheek wording), but thought that I'd done my bit. However, a week later I received the following :
"Dear Mr. Harris, thank you so much for your kind words, but we're sorry that you're not completely satisfied with Big Star, and so have forwarded your letter to head office." Hmm. Polite of them to acknowledge, I thought. Then a week later I received the following from head office : "Dear Mr. Harris, thank you so much for your kind words, but we're sorry that you're not completely satisfied with Big Star, and so we would like to invite you to discuss your problems with our managers over dinner at the Europa hotel on such-and-such a date." Hmm. Free dinner, I thought, shame it coincides with my Tai-Chi class. But then I realised that I was unlikely to be alone, and that they would probably be trying to woo back everyone who had filled in a complaint form, and so all the most obnoxious, mean-spirited and whingey people in Chapel Hill would be there. That I couldn't miss. And did the Europa hotel know the scrutiny their restaurant was going to be under, I wondered ?

So off I went, suitably early to get in a few complimentary cocktails before stationing myself on the corner of a square of tables set for about 50 people. The main course was a rather fine steak, and my neighbours were a couple of middle-aged ladies, one of whom eventually worked out that I wasn't from those parts, but was surprised to find that I was foriegn. "England ! Oh, so how do find life in the west ?". Bear in mind that we were on the east coast of the country. It was a political divide that I had apparently crossed.

Several courses and limitless wine later, the managers started oozing at us, reminding us how very important we were too them, and how very distressed they were that we were not entirely happy, but we must realise that it was hard to keep everybody happy at the same time. And then they took our individual grievances one-by-one. Mine was far and above the most reasonable. One objected to the placing of structural elements of the building; most missed some obscure product line that the simpering managers defensively but reasonably pointed out would take up space currently occupied by more popular items. My objection was very sensibly countered by the suggestion that they would lose more customers than they would gain by a smoking ban, but they agreed to placing 50 "Please do not smoke" signs around the store. Fair enough. Only once did the suits lose their cool, and that was with a displaced New-Yorker who couldn't believe that they didn't stock the 10oz packets of spoon-sized shredded wheat. "Don't we sir ? I thought we had the whole range of that product ? Look, we have the 24oz, the 18oz, the 12oz, the 8oz. Oh."
"So are you going to stock it ?"
"Well, I doubt if they have such fine divisions..."
"They have 10oz in New York"
"But really sir ! We have 15000 product lines, FOUR different sizes of spoon- sized shredded wheat. I think it would be a little unreasonble to expect us to stop some other line in order to make space for the 10oz packets."
"I have coupons for 5c off the 10oz size"
Things deteriorated a little after that and I forget the details, but I suspect they quietly bought the coupons off him for a good price.
It was all definitely worth missing my Tai Chi for.

© Mark Harris 1997

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