The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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January 20, 2014

Stocking grocery shelves was a matter of ‘purple ink’

An Editor's Notes

- — It’s amazing how technology has a way of reminding you how far we’ve come in such a relatively short period of time. The progress seems to have no boundaries. Sure we all know about the Internet, smartphones, advances in photography and music recording, and electronic tablets and other gizmos.

But how about the stocking of shelves at a grocery store?

I was pushing my cart around a local grocery the other day, and noticed one of the employees rapidly and efficiently restocking some of the shelves. The way he went about his job was far different than mine in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I worked at the former Schenker’s Market on George Street in Sharon behind the meat counter and in the aisles.

First off, electronic scanning of inventory and bar codes were things we couldn’t fathom, and the taking of inventory was accomplished the really old-fashioned way – with our eyes and a trusty notepad. We’d walk up and down the aisles and write down the products that we needed. Before phoning in the order to distributors such as Seaway and Tamarkin Brothers in Youngstown, we had to check the myriad of cardboard boxes in the stockroom, making sure we didn’t have any of the product buried among the stacks.

Absent the era of barcodes, delivery days were always hectic, for employees as well as our customers. Like a scene from today’s stores, aisles were crammed as box after box one on top of the other lined the middle of the aisles. Unlike a lot of the 24-hour stores today, we closed at 10 p.m., which meant the shelves were restocked during peak business hours. That meant taking a break from stocking to slice a pound of ham or cheese at the deli. No hand sanitizer or throwaway gloves 40 years ago, we washed our hands every time at the small sink in the back room.

Remember, no bar codes. How did we price the items, a can of corn, a roll of waxed paper, or a can of coffee? We had a metal stamper with narrow rubber reels with raised numbers that you turned until you got the numbers to line up for the  correct price. It probably sounds more cumbersome than it really was. You pushed down on the stamper into a pad containing a semi-permanent purple ink, and stamped the cans and other items.

You always wanted to keep prices on the shelves current and after rotating the stock, any items having the old prices needed to be re-stamped. That involved using a special acrid-smelling solvent that easily wiped away the former price.

My boss, mentor and store owner, the late Ed Schenker, had a keen eye when it came to consistent prices. Many times, he summoned me to one of the aisles that contained items that I had missed, stamped with different prices. You never wanted to have one box of spaghetti with a cheaper price than the other ones. That just wasn’t good for business.

Maybe all of this in some small, weird way explains why to this day, I enjoy doing the grocery-shopping on Saturday mornings with daughter, Jamie, and Brady, our golden retriever, riding along, of course.

And every time I see employees stocking shelves without a stamper or scanning inventory without a notepad and pencil, I think of how fortunate that they are, and that most of them don’t realize it. Good for them.

Jim Raykie is the executive editor of The Herald and his column is published on Mondays.

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