An eerie silence falls over the handful of staff and shoppers who remain for the final hours of a decades-old supermarket’s reign over Red Deer’s north hill.
Floors have been cleared of displays, shelves are mostly emptied and what’s left in the produce department has been marked down by 25 per cent. Someone has used a wax pencil to scrawl a goodbye note on one of the doors. A handful of staff have a quiet chat, standing on a bare section of floor that once held displays of deli and bakery treats.
Six o’clock rolls around and it’s all over. The Safeway store in Red Deer’s Parkland Mall closed for good on Saturday, a casualty of its failure to meet the performance standards of its new owner, Empire Company Ltd.
Empire, which also owns Sobeys, had acquired Canada Safeway in 2013 and announced six months ago that it would close 50 of its lowest-performing Safeway and Sobeys stores.
That closure would include the Parkland Mall Safeway, which looks across the street at its closest competitor, the Sobeys in Village Mall.
Saturday’s final hours were a bittersweet finale for Parkland Mall Safeway and for the people who worked there, Red Deer glass artist David Laing said after packing up his groceries and putting his shopping cart away for the last time.
“I understand the nature of corporate North America. Businesses open and close,” said Laing.
“I’m sad. I’ve been coming here for probably 10 years, so I know all the staff. They’ve got the same batch of mixed emotions. They perfectly understand the nature of corporate North America, this kind of stuff happens. I think, probably, some of them are probably really bitter. It’s human nature.”
Laing said he lives nearby and has stayed loyal to the store because of the relationships he developed with the staff and because the store offered stability and consistency. He knew the people and he knew where to find things if he was in a rush.
Now, he’s looking forward to seeing some of his friends from the Parkland Mall store working in their new positions at the Port O’Call Safeway in downtown Red Deer.
John and Mary Wenger, who started using the Parkland Mall store when they moved to Red Deer in 1973, said they will also switch their loyalties to the Port O’ Call store.
Mary Wenger said the most important aspect for her is the sales — she likes to get things for half price.
She had shopped for groceries once a week at the Parkland Mall store, her preferred location because she found it brighter and cleaner than its counterpart downtown.
Canada Safeway has been a part of the Parkland Mall since it was first opened in the fall of 1970. The original store was in roughly the same spot, but was blocked from view somewhat by a Beaver Lumber store at the southwest corner of the mall. The lumber store was later torn down and the Safeway store was expanded, giving it plenty of parking space and a commanding view of Gaetz Avenue from the top of the embankment behind the Riverside light industrial park.
Mall manager Dan Hachey said on Friday that losing Safeway is not as tragic for the mall as some people may have assumed. It had occupied a highly visible and therefore highly desirable piece of real estate that will be attractive to other retailers. Hachey said he does not yet know who will occupy the space, but it definitely will not be another supermarket.
People who shop for groceries tend not to go elsewhere in the mall because they don’t like to drag carts full of groceries aroud and they don’t like to leave their bags in the car. Food that should stay cools heats up when the weather gets warm and food that should stay at room temperature freezes solid when it’s cold outside, said Hachey.
Looking at the growth in Red Deer over the past 45 years, he points out that there was a time when people in rural areas around Red Deer had fewer options for buying groceries.
Now, there are three supermarkets in Sylvan Lake alone as well as three others in the immediate area of the mall.
The next tenant or tenants will be the type of retailer that will attract people to cross shop throughout the mall, said Hachey.
Betty Kellsey, public affairs manager for Safeway and Sobeys stores in Alberta, said the impact on staff has been minimal because workers were given months of notice.
A number of people from the mall store have found other jobs, while some have moved to the Port O’ Call store, she said.
Empire had previously closed the pharmacy in the Parkland Mall and moved its prescription business downtown, creating an increase in traffic there, said McLaren.
The company anticipates a similar increase in traffic for the rest of the store, with the result that it will need more staff.
Some people downtown have been bumped from their positions by senior staff from the mall, while a number of junior, part-time staff were laid off.
However, neither Kellsey nor Theresa McLaren, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, could say exactly how many people lost their jobs.
McLaren said on Friday that Kellsey was accurate in stating that the impact was minimal in terms of the number of people who ended up being laid off.
The UFCW has taken issue with the process, however, because people from the mall were tightly restricted in terms of the jobs they could take downtown.
For example, someone who was a cashier in the mall was not allowed to take the coffee counter downtown, even though it was a less pay and fewer hours, because she was not deemed qualified for what is essentially an entry-level position, said McLaren.
The union has launched a grievance on behalf of workers who were not allowed to move into jobs as per the letter of their contract, she said.
Store staff were advised by their managers not to speak with news media, said Kellsey. That has been a long-standing policy with Safeway, she said.