Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What We Can Learn From Stephanie Teteak's Best Grocery Bagger Victory At the NGA Show

Stephanie Teteak and Blake Westling wait for the judges' decision at yesterday's NGA 'Best Bagger' competition in Las Vegas. [Photo Credit: Leila Navidi. Courtesy Las Vegas Sun.]

The Insider - Heard On the Street

Until the mid-to-late 1970's it was a rare supermarket chain or independent grocer in America that hired women of any age to bag groceries. I know this for a fact because I was one of the boys who made his spending money as a teenager, and later most of his tuition and living expenses as a college student, bagging groceries and stocking shelves in a supermarket.

But beginning in the mid-to-late 1970's, and accelerating in the 1980's to today, this gender bias changed dramatically. Young, and not so young, women began filling the grocery bagger ranks in America's supermarkets, working side-by-side at the checkout stands with the boys.

And a funny thing happened when that big change came - most of the girls (sorry guys) were far better at bagging groceries then us boys were - more careful in how they packed Mrs. Roger's eggs, better at segregating the frozen foods and perishables together so they would stay colder for Mrs. Roger's trip home, much better when it came to chatting with the customer while bagging (women are superior to us men when it comes to multi-tasking), and so on. To sum it up, they were, generally speaking, more courteous courtesy clerks than the guys were. Sorry again, guys.

Another funny thing happened when the big change came, those of us boys who worked in the stores bagging groceries and stocking shelves were pleased as punch to have young, and not so young, women working side-by-side with us, as is the case today in America's food and grocery retailing industry.

I thought about this history and experience yesterday - despite the fact my memory isn't as good as it was when I was bagging groceries four decades ago - when I heard the news the judges at the National Grocer's Association (NGA) convention and show in Las Vegas, Nevada honored Stephanie Teteak, 30, with the first place award at its annual "Best Bagger" championship contest, which was held during the show on Monday.

Stephanie Teteak, who works for the Larry's Piggy Wiggly supermarket in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, was one of two finalists in the annual "Best Bagger" competition, which was held yesterday during the show, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday.

The other finalist was Blake Westling, a 20-year-old college student and grocery bagger who works for a Byerly's supermarket in Eagan, Minnesota.

There were 24 competitors (see the photo below) in the competition, representing 24 U.S. states. Each of the competitors had to win state competitions in order to make it to the national finals in Las Vegas.

The contestants were judged on a number of criteria, including: speed, accuracy, distribution of product weight in the bags, bag building techniques, appearance (theirs' personally as well as that of the full bag) and attitude. The NGA also had the contestants use reusable canvas bags, providing a green reminder to all who watched the contest.

The items used to fill the bags were just like those grocery products bagged on the job - boxed breakfast cereal, a container of Folgers Coffee, a package of cookies, a can of Campbell's soup, a carton of eggs, and the like.

There were five preliminary rounds in the competition yesterday. Stephanie Teteak and Blake Westling were the last two standing when all was said and done.

Waiting for the judges decision, the two "Best Bagger" contestants stood on the stage holding hands (see the photo at top). When the judges announced that Teteak had won, Blake Westling congratulated her. There was no gender bias in his eyes or in his behavior.

For her winning effort Teteak, who in addition to being a grocery bagger is a bookkeeper and has been in the grocery business for 13-years, takes home a check for $10,000, along with the "Golden Grocery Bag" trophy given to the first place winner each year. Her store - Larry's Piggy Wiggly, in Kaukauna, Wisconsin - was awarded a golden colored checkout stand with Ms. Teteak's name on it.

Stephanie Teteak accepts her 'Best Bagger' check at the NGA Show.
Blake Westling takes home $5,000 for his second place efforts, which he says he's going to use in part to help pay his college tuition, putting the rest into a Roth IRA. Not only is he a true champion, he's a wise and prudent young man.

A total of $24,000 was awarded in the competition, which was sponsored by the Kellogg Company, Bunzl Distributors Inc. and Pan-Oston. Rob Mow of Martin’s Super Markets in South Bend, Indiana came in third place, winning $1,000.  Florida-based, employee-owned Publix Supermarkets picked up fourth and fifth place, with Alexis Jeup of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and Bryan Nowell of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, winning $1,000 each.

Teteak, who competed in the competition last year but didn't place, says she "worked really hard" to achieve her win, practicing regularly and competing in the Wisconsin state bag-off competitions 10 times previously.

America's top bagger said yesterday she plans to use her winnings to "pay off some bills." That's smart, wise and financially prudent, a trait she shares with Blake Westling, when it comes to how they plan to use their winnings.

Stephanie Teteak (far left) with two of her fans at yesterday's bag-off.
Stephanie Teteak also says this about her day job: "Bagging is the most important job in the store. No bag of mine goes out there, that isn’t perfect."

Object lessons come in many forms and from various places in life, including from "Best Bagger" competitions like the one held at the NGA show yesterday.

I think there's two such lessons we can learn from Stephanie Teteak's winning of the "Best Bagger" competition yesterday.

The first lesson is that although change can be difficult - such as the supermarket industry's opening the doors to women as grocery baggers and checkers, and later as shelf stockers, store managers, mid-level managers and executives - if its the right thing to do (like it was), most of us recognize it, and then wonder why it took so long to come about.

Most of us also embrace such change (some earlier than others), because that's also the right thing to do. Case in point: Few if any people would argue against the fact that opening the doors to women has made America's food and grocery retailing industry far superior in every way to what it was back when it was primarily a boys club.

The industry has been a bit slower in opening up its senior executive ranks to women, however. But that too is changing.

For example, Walmart has just named a woman, Rosalind Brewer, as chief executive of Sam's Club, and last week Safeway Stores, Inc. named Lori Raya president of its top-grossing Vons' division, which has 300-plus stores in Southern California, Southern Nevada and California's Central Valley.

Both Brewer and Raya came up through the ranks at Walmart and Safeway respectively. And there are numerous female grocery baggers (and stockers and checkers) out there working in America's grocery stores who welcome the opportunity to advance up through the ranks, if they so desire to do so.

Additionally, an increasing number of women are becoming store managers.

And at the headquarters level women are gaining leadership positions in category management, merchandising, marketing and finance, whereas in the past most grocery chains slotted women senior executives in areas like human resources, public relations and nutrition-consumer affairs. For example, one of the fastest-growing areas in the U.S. food and grocery industry is private or store brand product development and marketing. Many of the most talented executives currently heading up those programs at chains are women.

The second object lesson I suggest we can take from Ms. Teteak's victory comes from her quote about bagging being the most important job in the store.

That lesson is, that we should all remember what she says because it, like all the other store-level positions, are where the action is. If it doesn't happen at retail, it isn't going to happen at all.

Events like the NGA's "Best Bagger" competition serve an important role in drawing attention - both within the industry and to the general public - to the employees who work in the stores.

NGA president and CEO Peter Larkin, who previously was president of the California Grocers Association, said it well in a statement today, noting: "This competition continues to shine a light on the incredible dedication and work ethic of grocery employees, particularly baggers, from all across the country. These competitors are a small sample of the thousands of baggers all across this country who help customers every day with exceptional customer service and demonstrate an enormous amount of pride in what they do."

And it is well deserved attention, as Stephanie Teteak shows us, not because she won first place in the NGA's "Best Bagger" competition, but because she competed - and was able to compete because of those changes that started in the industry back in the 1970's, and continue today.

But regardless of gender or performance, I doubt Teteak would have become America's top grocery bagger yesterday, or entered the competition in the first place, were it not for the attitude she has about her job, which she expressed after receiving her award yesterday, saying: "Bagging is the most important job in the store. No bag of mine goes out there, that isn’t perfect."

That's an attitude all of us need to make sure we have, regardless of what our job is. Thanks for the lessons Stephanie.

(Bottom three photographs courtesy National Grocers Association.)

- The Insider

[Read past columns by our 'The Insider' columnist here.]


Anonymous said...

First part of my reply:

Congratulations to Ms. Teteak!

What did bring back memories was when the Insider noted that Blake Westling was the runner-up who works for the Lund's-owned Byerly's chain in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

If you have never heard of Byerly’s, it’s hard to explain if you have never been in one. Think of a luxury department store, but instead of tiled floors usually found in a grocery store, most Byerly’s are entirely carpeted, a grocery store nonetheless. Oh, and don’t forget the chandeliers hung throughout the store to improve lighting.

Don Byerly certainly created great places to grocery shop that at the time (and to a lesser extent today) are considered “destinations“, especially the St. Louis Park "gallery" Byerly’s store with the famous cooking school.

At one time, almost all Byerly locations (except one or two locations) had in-store full service sit down restaurants.

Also, after Don Byerly sold out to the Vulture Capitalists in 1990...I mean venture capitalists, Byerly’s just wasn't quite the same after that time.

Under ownership by the vulture capitalists, Byerly's did add a few more locations in the Twin Cities, but with a metro population of about 1.75 million in the Metro area, and average upscale Byerly's box running 90,000 square feet, the Twin Cities could only support so many of these beautiful destination stores. At that time, Rainbow and Cub Foods were running on all cylinders, and were adding new stores within the Twin Cities area as well.

The real downfall of Byerly's was when the new vulture capitalists took their eye of the ball and the Twin Cities market, and "broadened" their horizons on an ill-fated expansion plan to other midwest cities, and eventually opened two locations in Chicagoland.

In 1996, one Byerly’s location opened in the upscale community of Highland Park, which at that time was served by a rather small size and decades old Jewel Food Store, a Dominick’s, and a great, local place to shop, Sunset Foods.

Rumors had been circulating since the 1980's that Byerly's wanted to expand into the Chicagoland market, even before Don Byerly sold his chain to the vulture capitalists...I don't know why I keep saying that Byerly’s owners at that time were "vulture capitalists", when I'm a capitalist pig and a retail slut all combined into one...lol

One would have thought that the Highland Park location and it's core demographics would have worked very well for Byerly's. But Chicago is not the Twin Cities, and those Italian boys who ran Sunset Foods (and still do so today) actually increased their sales at their Highland Park store by the time Byerly's Chicago run was over. Yes, those in the Twin Cities love their food, but it’s a different kind of taste, where Chicagoans have foods and tastes unique to them. Yes, it’s still the midwest, but very different between the two regions of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago.

Also in 1996, Byerly’s opened a larger location in Schaumburg. Schaumburg’s demographics are not in the same category as Highland Park, but Schaumburg has been a growing business and commerce destination for over 40 years, similar in some respects to Irvine. The Schaumburg Byerly’s was located very close by to the big Woodfield Mall. Unfortunately, the Schaumburg Byerly’s was even more disappointing from the start. Even though those who lived or drove past the Byerly’s location knew of it’s existence, but more problematic was for those potential customers who were from out of the area, and specifically going to Woodfield Mall would have never found the store, hence the “missed” destination.


Anonymous said...

Second part of my reply:

Woodfield Mall has been a “destination” since it’s opening in the 1970’s, due to it’s large size (the largest mall in the midwest, except for Mall of America), and the collection of stores represented.

Unfortunately, those Woodfield Mall “destination” shoppers could not see Byerly’s from Woodfield, or for that matter, the two nearby expressways that front Woodfield to the north and east. Although Byerly’s was very close by to Woodfield Mall, unless you knew where Byerly’s was actually located, you never knew to go, and hence, the missed sales from those “destination” shoppers who would have stopped into Byerly’s and certainly dropped coins for those impulse and unique items that Byerly’s is known for.
In addition, the Higgins Rd and Meacham Rd intersection in Schaumburg is a very, very busy intersection, feeding off from the nearby Woodfield and expressway traffic, but too far away from local housing to support the store, and at the time, strong marketshare/market dominance (at that time) from Jewel and Dominick's. All of those factors basically killed the Schaumburg Byerly’s in a very short time.

In addition, what works in the Twin Cities usually had the opposite effect in Chicago, hence Dayton-Hudson's very, very late entry into the Chicagoland market with Target. Dayton's had already acquired Marshall Field's before the first Target opened in Chicagoland, with the closest Target located in Rockford., some 70 miles to the northwest of Chicago.

Back to Byerly's....

At the time of Byerly's ill-fated Chicago expansion, and after opening and watching sales after the two store openings dive like the Titanic, the vulture capitalists were having ulcer's and lots of surprises in their pants and frantically were looking for a buyer.

They couldn't find one for the entire chain. Not Don Byerly, and not anybody else. Finally, the two Chicago locations were off-loaded to a then independent Dominick's (before Safeway), and family-owned Lund's was able to pick up Byerly’s for pennies on the dollar.

Lund's overnight quadrupled their sales (most Lund's stores were and still are much smaller than an average Byerly's, both in size and sales) upon acquiring the Twin Cities/St. Cloud Byerly’s locations.

For the Byerly's chain, only one new Byerly’s store has opened under Lund's ownership, but the Maple Grove, MN Byerly’s was already in the planning/design stage before being acquired by Lund‘s, and later Lund’s closed the Byerly’s Bloomington, MN location. Lund’s has added a couple of their “Lund’s” store locations, with one new Lund’s scheduled to open later this year, for a total of 22 combined Lund’s and Byerly’s locations.

Under Lund's ownership they, Lund's has done a good job of incorporating the best features of Byerly's with Lund's upscale offerings, but the Byerly's stores have lost some of that uniqueness that Don Byerly created.

Yes, Byerly's today is still for the most part a destination store, and Lund's has tried very hard to maintain the quality of the products sold in the stores.

Today, only three Byerly's and one Lund's have sit down full service restaurants. The menu's are still unique, but scaled back from the heydays.

You can see a sample menu here:


Wine/Desert Menu:



Anonymous said...

Third part of my reply:

So, for Blake Westling, medical school might be a better career than one in the Twin Cities grocery industry.

I wish southern California had a "destination" grocery store like Byerly's, and for me, Bristol Farms/Lazy Acres and Whole Foods don't cut it.

One store that kind of comes somewhat close as a "destination" store is the relatively recent (2010) remodeled/expanded Fry's that was turned into a Fry's Signature Marketplace store, located at Tatum and Shea in Phoenix. Too bad parent company Kroger wont try that format with a Ralphs location in southern California.

As far as Blake Westling, his stated goal of practicing medicine might be a better career choice than a career in the Twin Cities grocery industry. I certainly would not want to be in the "bowels" of the current corporate structure of Supervalu (not related to Lund's and Byerly's). I only mention this because Supervalu is based in suburban Eden Prairie, MN. Working for Supervalu corporate would kill the meaning of Minnesota "nice".

P.S. Did anyone catch what the "Insider" pointed out in his column that all of the winners were from independent grocers (I consider Publix independent, even though it's a very large independent)? That tells me that the big chain stores probably do not even support this contest or type of activity, and probably less so at the unionized grocers. Insider can correct me if I'm wrong on that point.


Fresh & Easy Buzz said...

Thanks for the extensive comment/essay S_C_R_S

Great read!

The reason all the winners (and all the contestants) represent independent grocers is because the "Best Bagger" contest is held at the NGA (National Grocer's Association) Show. The NGA is the industry trade organization for independent grocers only.

As such, the contest is self-selective in that regard.

The definition the NGA uses for an "independent" is pretty broad; basically a chain that has some family or private ownership.

Most of the member independent grocers are majority family-owned or privately-held operators though.

Publix is employee-owned (through an ESOP), like WinCo Foods is, so it is that definition that makes it an "independent."

Independents can be huge - H-E-B = $15 billion annual sales; Wegmans = $12 billion annual sales, for example. It's the ownership structure that counts in terms of the definition.

Supervalue Inc. participates in the NGA Show because, as you know, it is also a wholesaler, as well as a retailer. Most of the wholesale division's retail customers are independents.

Also, Save A Lot, for example, is a franchise operation. The store owners are individual independents or independent groups/partnerships.

As far as I know, none of the food retailing associations, FMI being the main one, has a "Best Bagger" contest like the annual one at the NGA show.

Some state grocer associations that also have publically-held chains as members do hold them.

Hope that helps.

-The Insider

PS to all readers: Stephanie Teteak did appear on Late Night with David Letterman (see the story), where she bagged groceries with the former grocery store worker. Letterman worked in a supermarket in his home state of Indiana as a young man.