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Unbelievable Food Bargains Thrill and Help Financially Strapped Customers: Bargain Bin, Phoenix, ArizonaBy Vicki McClure Davidson
Ya-Ju Bradley, with her ever-present smile and cheery greetings to customers, is always busy. The small "salvaged goods" grocery store she and her husband, Robert, own and operate in Phoenix is bustling more than ever. Despite the slumping economy—or more accurately, because of it—their family-owned grocery store outlet business, Bargain Bin, is thriving. Almost unbelievable.
Bargain Bin, located at 5544 E. Thomas Road, Phoenix, is a food shopper's paradise (note: new address and name, scroll to bottom for updated info). It's also salvation for countless families who are being hammered by rising household costs, lost jobs, and decimated wages.
Ya-Ju, who is nicknamed Betty, never appears flustered nor is discourteous, no matter how frantic their little store of close-outs, slightly damaged boxes, and discontinued food items becomes. For anyone who isn't unduly picky about the condition of the packaging, this store offers the ultimate treasure hunt.
Bargain Bin is packed to the rafters with crushed boxes of tea bags and name-brand cereal, slightly dented cans of green beans and corn, out-of-season Christmas candy and holiday cards, gourmet salad dressings with damaged labels, pasta, taped-up bags of Gold Medal flour, corn meal, cake mix, laundry detergent, Wolfgang Puck canned soup, Starbucks coffee beans, enchilada sauce, spices, dry dog food, hair supplies, vitamins, toilet paper, and thousands of other salvaged food and household items—all goods are priced at 50 to 75 percent less than (some even as low as 90 percent off) their original retail prices. At Bargain Bin, absolutely everything is a bargain.
The Bradleys, who also own a smoothie shop in Mesa, bought Bargain Bin almost six years ago. The store stocks what other major grocery chains, like Safeway and Fry's, want or need to get rid of, so sell the goods to grocery outlet stores for a fraction of original wholesale. That savings is passed on to consumers. Betty works at the store full-time, and Robert and three other employees work there on a part-time basis.
Inventory is unpredictable. Betty explains that they can't order or request any merchandise. The inventory is purchased at specific centers for each grocery chain, some in California, to which the Bradleys must travel to pickup. They are notified by the large-chain stores as to when and where to go when new stock is available. All purchases for the outlet are made sight unseen and are by the truckload. So, the Bradleys never know with what food, paper, or cleaning items they'll be stocking their shelves. Canned goods are displayed everywhere in the store this week, and for some items, there are additional savings (handwritten signs are peppered everywhere, stating "Buy 1, Get 1 Free," or "3 for $1.00") to quickly move out the overstock. All prices are handwritten with a black Sharpie pen directly on the merchandise—there is no fancy pricing machine. Despite the clutter and cramped space, the store is fairly organized and always well stocked. Betty takes care of that, hustling over to boxes to resume unpacking them whenever there is a lull in ringing up transactions.
Enormous cans of newly arrived hominy and pinto beans, priced at 99 cents each, are stacked at the front of one aisle. Down another aisle, there's an abundance of canned sardines in tomato sauce, bottles of BBQ sauces and upscale marinades, and boxes of Stouffer's turkey stuffing and instant mashed potatoes. Betty explains that marking down the items from their already-low prices cuts into their profits, but that they must do it if there is too much of any one product. She isn't sure how large the store is, but believes it's 2,500 square feet, give or take. A tight squeeze to house the thousands of cans, bottles, packets, boxes, and jars that are in the back storeroom and throughout the facility. If Bargain Bin has a popular item one week, customers need to snatch it right then and there, because it will likely be sold out next week. There is no guarantee that it will be in stock soon, or ever again.
"We wanted to do something together, run a small business together," she says, which is why she and Robert decided to buy the store. Their weeks are hectic, since they also manage the smoothie store and have two small children—their daughter is 4 and their son is 2. The couple has been married 10 years.
It's obvious that Betty enjoys what she does. Despite the demanding workload, she never lets on that she's frazzled or tired. After ringing up a purchase, she always says, with reverent sincerity, "Thank you SO much for coming," emphasizing the word "so." It's charming and heartfelt. I've been shopping at Bargain Bin for three years now, and the woman is consistently friendly. She makes each shopper feel appreciated and special. If you ask her about the location of something, she happily darts from behind the counter to locate it. Her parents ran a store when she was a child, so she has been serving the public since she could barely walk. Betty understands the importance of customer service, even if the store is selling slightly damaged goods.
The Bradleys also help the community, on occaision giving free food to a homeless person who may wander in. However, Betty says, almost apologetically, "I can't do that too much. If the word gets out, the next day, we'll have a crowd of homeless people wanting free food." She and Robert have directed the homeless to a nearby church that feed the hungry, and they have donated food to it.
Increasingly, more people have discovered the Bradleys' tiny store. With the current recession, family food budgets are strained; now, when I pop in every other Saturday to shop, it's apparent that more people are cruising the aisles than were a year ago. Times are tougher for everyone these days, and for those who are used to shopping in a large, modern, shiny grocery store, adjusting to the store's hodgepodge and the cosmetically flawed goods can be rather unnerving. But it's worth the change in mindset. Bargain Bin offers that exquisite, euphoric feeling I call "conquering the food jungle." It's an intoxicating thrill many experience after shopping at Bargain Bin.
Per major shopping trip, I usually spend about $40 to $50 and leave the store with at least $150 worth of food, pet, and cleaning supplies. Where else can you buy a box of gourmet almond biscotti coated in chocolate for a buck, or happen upon a mayonnaise sale with each jar priced to clear quickly at just 50 cents? Boxes of my favorite tea bags average $1.25. When they're in stock, I'll grab a few extra cans of Ortega diced chile peppers (currently priced at 20 cents each), a few bottles of Newman's Own Balsamic Vinaigrette (priced at $1.00 or $1.25, depending on the shipment) and my personal addiction, cans of Crown Prince smoked oysters (also priced at a dollar). Bags of Nestle's semi-sweet, milk chocolate, and raspberry swirl chocolate chips, when in stock, are usually priced at 33 cents or 50 cents per bag; some months ago, the store had so many that they were priced at a mere 20 cents per bag. I stocked up and have kept my hubby and son elated with countless batches of cheap-cheap-cheap homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies.
The grocery outlet store can keep its costs down because they focus on keeping their overhead low. The Bradleys don't stock fresh produce, meat, or dairy products, which have a shorter shelf life than dry or canned goods. They keep their advertising costs low, relying as much as possible on word of mouth. The building is not modern nor is it in an affluent area of the city. Signs in the store are hand-written. The philosophy of frugality is reflected in the modest store. Customers who aren't brainwashed into only accepting pristine packaging and glistening showcases benefit from the thriftiness of the owners.
With the variety of canned goods, there are many that are appropriate to buy to send in morale packages to our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. Last year, Bargain Bin was unloading small tins of anchovies for 25 cents each. I bought four, and the troop that received them went nuts. Guess there ARE people who love anchovies!There are many other stores like this one throughout the country. If you live in an area outside of the Phoenix area, locating a similar grocery outlet store in your city may be easier than you think. Begin with searching the Internet and business section of the Yellow Pages. Join a few thrift-conscious groups on Yahoo or MySpace. Talk with friends and families. Driving a bit farther than your local food store twice a month could ultimately save you thousands of dollars on your food bill per year.
As I conclude my shopping, I'm curious about her nickname, since it differs so much from her birth name, Ya-Ju. "Why do you go by Betty?" I ask her."It's easier for people to say than my real name, " Betty says, smiling, as she rings up my purchases. "And it sounds, well, happy." Then, she notices my solitary, gigantic 26-ounce can of black beans priced at 99 cents. She exclaims, almost alarmed, "Oh, these are buy one, get one free! You need to go get another can so you can get it for free!" Which I promptly do.
Her nickname Betty is a perfect fit.
UPDATE: Business must be good, because Bargain Bin has relocated to a much larger store. It is still in the same area, only a few storefronts due west of its original location. It is also renamed: Discount Food Box. The new address is 5536 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix, AZ. One thing that hasn't changed, though... Betty is still there, smiling.
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Interview with Ya-Ju "Betty" Bradley, Phoenix, AZ, February 21, 2009.