Pala Rez Radio
Special to Valley News
Normally, this perspective wouldn’t be considered investigative reporting. But these are extraordinary times. So I’m sharing my first experience with curbside grocery pickup. Think of it as a throwback to the days before A&P, Piggly Wiggly and Southern California’s oldest grocery company, Ralph’s introduced self-serve supermarkets. Ralphs has been around since Fallbrook was a stop on the southern transcontinental railroad. Before supermarkets, you went to a grocer or general merchandise store or a specialty shop like the butcher or baker and were waited on.
On Wednesday, March 25, after nine straight days and nights sequestered here at the Rez Radio studios, I ventured out into the world to stock up on supplies for the duration and see what had changed in that amount of time. Spoiler alert: a lot! I decided to experiment with Ralph’s Groceries’ Curbside Pickup Program. A lot of chains have initiated such programs over the past year or two. Dozens of North County and southwest Riverside restaurants that don’t have a drive-thru have also been forced to add curbside or takeout service this month or face closing.
I began Monday evening with the Ralph’s website where I spent a fair amount of time navigating for the first time and filling my cart only to find out that there were no available pickup times available within the four-day time frame they allow for pickup at the closest store, which for me is 33145 Temecula Parkway at Butterfield Stage Road in Temecula. But close to midnight Monday evening, on a whim I went back to the site and found an appointment had opened up Wednesday at 1-2 p.m. You get a one-hour window, and they advise you to show up in the middle of it. I grabbed it like a dog grateful for a table scrap and modified a couple of items in my cart, which had automatically been saved from my previous visit.
Online ordering at the time wouldn’t let me have any paper products for pickup or delivery. I placed my order, paid by credit card and waited for the email confirmation. It came right away. Because the process was new to me and I hadn’t made a list, I went back to modify and add to my order twice more, which can be done until midnight the night before your pickup.
On Wednesday, I drove to Ralphs on Temecula Parkway arriving at about 1:20 p.m., located the two designated pickup parking spaces, took the open one and called the dedicated phone number on the sign to let them know I’d arrived. A clerk answered right away and said they’d be right out with my order. It took about 10 minutes during which time I noticed the other designated space had been taken by someone not waiting for an order even though the lot was less than packed and there was no line to get into the store.
Ralphs’ associate Gloria arrived with my order, asking me to open the trunk, which is the only place they’re allowed to put things. If you need your purchase loaded on a seat or the floor up front, you have to do it yourself. Probably a temporary health precaution.
Of my 68 items, 14 were not available. Substitutes were found for seven. If the price was higher on the substitute, the price was modified to match what was ordered. You can choose whether or not to allow substitutes. I chose “no” for several nonessentials. Different sizes were substituted for two items – in both cases, smaller sizes which really wasn’t very helpful and was kind of expensive. Baking soda, butter, cottage cheese and eggs from my list were not available in any quantity or brand. E-coupons were applied, and they would have taken paper ones if I’d had any. Does anybody still use paper coupons? Can you still get them?
If you buy anything sold by the pound, whatever your online total was will change when you arrive. Between that, substitutions, coupons and six unavailable items, my total dropped from the $171 estimate to $134. The exact amount was totaled, and I was given a receipt printed at my car. There was no service charge, and Gloria refused the tip I tried to hand her.
Ralph’s offers pickup shopping free the first three times, then it’s about $7. Some other stores including Walmart never charge for curbside pickup. The process at Ralph’s lasted just over 20 minutes and would be quicker if there hadn’t been so many shortages on some items. This store was also out of bags after the big rush last week. Since I hadn’t brought my own, they provided boxes – just like going to Costco, which is something I wouldn’t recommend doing until a little sanity returns there. Virtually every Costco has had lines of hundreds of people circling the building every morning – including seniors’ early hours. How do they get away with that and still comply with social distancing orders? That’s another story.
In addition to 20 minutes in Ralph’s parking lot, online ordering, payment and several modifications because I was unfamiliar with and a little unprepared for the process took at least another 40 minutes. So, overall, curbside grocery pickup – at least at Ralph’s – is not a time saver. Maybe with practice and fewer shortages. But these days there are other considerations. For those who have trouble getting around or who must avoid crowds because of chronic health issues, it’s great.
A couple of things to keep in mind. Bring bags just as you would for regular shopping. Don’t do it if you’re on a budget. The uncertainty over exact final prices mean your quoted estimate could be way off and you might have to remove items to stay on target. If you’re shopping with sale prices in mind, don’t place an order on the weekend or Monday unless you’ll be picking it up before Wednesday. And don’t order at all Tuesday unless you don’t care about sale prices. That’s because the week’s sale items change Wednesday, and you’ll be charged whatever the current shelf price is the day you pick up. If I had stuck with my original order, I’d have paid double for some produce and meat I originally had in my cart. That seemed a little unfair since I’d have gladly come to get the order Tuesday if they’d have let me. They’re happy to remove any item you decide you don’t want at pickup because of price change or for any reason. But who needs disruption in your plans? Curbside pickup is all about making a plan and having it go smoothly.
Considering the supply chain disruptions and everything else going on. This experience went rather well for me. Gloria couldn’t have been nicer. Plus, the extra added bonus, there was hardly any traffic in Temecula. What?!