High prices hit local grocers

Published 10:49 am Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Kathy Ellis faces merchandise at Jim's Market Place Friday. High food prices are also impacting supermarkets and food stores. -- Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

There isn’t much a local grocery store can do to control the price of its products.

For Jim Baldus, owner of Jim’s Market Place Foods in Austin, it means whenever manufacturers or wholesalers raise their prices, the grocery store is forced to do the same.

Lately, he said, they’ve noticed the increase in almost everything they buy.

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“Across the board, pretty much with everything, we’ve seen some type of increase,” Baldus said.

For Baldus, it means one of two things: He can either raise prices and risk loosing customers, or he can absorb the cost. But, Baldus said, he can only absorb so much.

“We have to keep raising prices, but we keep eating part of it, too,” he said. “But there’s some point where you can’t eat all the raises.”

For customers, Baldus said, it means shopping smarter, looking for values, and not buying brand name foods.

“And that’s why you see more people buying the private label,” he said.

Jim’s Market Place carries ShurFine products, a private label for independent supermarkets, and when times are tough, Baldus said, he sees a lot more people buying the cheaper alternative.

“Which is smart. A lot of these private labels are packaged by major manufacturers, but you don’t see advertising with private labels,” he said, adding that keeps costs a lot lower.

In January, Baldus bought Jim’s Market Place, which used to be Jim’s SuperValu Foods, part of the SuperValu Inc. grocery retailer corporation. Since then, the grocery store has been a member of Affiliated Foods Midwest, a 1,000-store cooperative for independent grocers, which Baldus said helps keep costs down. Without it, he said, they would struggle to keep prices competitive.

“It helps considerably,” he said, adding that customers noticed it, too. “When we switched over, they noticed the price drops.”

Baldus also owns Ryan’s Foods in Hayfield and Marketplace Foods in Winnebago, Minn., which allows him to buy larger pallets of food and split it between the three stores.

“As prices rise, we all have to work harder and smarter,” he said.

But high commodity prices aren’t just affecting consumers and independent grocers, it’s hurting local farmers, too.

Eugene Anderson, a dairy farmer near Sargeant, said he has struggled the past two years just to break even on the dairy side of his business, and has had to use profits from his 340 acres of corn and soybeans to subsidize his 41-cow dairy business.

“If I were strictly selling milk, (I) would really, really have a tough time,” Anderson said. “You wouldn’t be able to do it if you didn’t have any other income.”

In addition, Anderson said, the price fluctuation for distributors and manufacturers doesn’t work in the farmer’s or grocer’s favor.

“When (farmers) take a big cut in pay, milk in the grocery store hardly ever goes down,” he said. “But when our price goes up, (distributors) tend to increase it.

“The high price of milk in the store doesn’t necessarily mean the farmer is getting a lot for his milk.”

So who is profiting, if it’s not the farmer or the grocer?

“Good question,” Anderson said. “Everybody you ask claims they aren’t making more money than before. But the (wholesaler) is the one making the money somewhere along the line. It’s not the farmer.”

Baldus said he agrees “100 percent.”

“Profits,” he said, “go to the middle man.”