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Southern California Food 4 Less workers authorize Kroger strike [Updated]

Kroger
Inspired by strike threats from workers at Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons earlier this year, Food 4 Less employees voted Thursday to authorize a strike if parent company Kroger Co. does not offer them better wages and benefits.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) from seven Southern California unions said workers at Food 4 Less sometimes make as much as $3 less than comparable employees at Ralphs, another Kroger chain.

The UFCW said in a statement that Cincinnati-based Kroger is “deliberately stalling progress” on negotiations as a way to “weaken union resolve.” Bargaining, the unions said, is expected to resume later this month.

UFCW finalized a three-year labor contract with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons in September after months of negotiations, calling the final deal a “win-win” for both sides.

“We have seen what staying united can do when you are in a fight with mega-corporations,” said UFCW member Beatrice Lopez in a statement Friday. “UFCW members at Ralphs stuck together and ended up with a contract that shows them respect. We are going to do the same.”

Kroger could not be reached for comment. Other Kroger chains include Fred Meyer and City Market.

[Updated 1:30 p.m.: “Food 4 Less remains committed to reaching an agreement that is good for our employees and helps keep union jobs sustainable for the future,” said Kendra Doyel, a spokeswoman for the chain, in a statement. “We will continue to work with union leadership to negotiate a contract. Our employees do not want to strike and they look forwrad to serving customers in our stores throughout the holiday season.”]

The grocery chain’s same-store sales without fuel were up 5% in the third quarter ending Nov. 5 compared to the same period last year -- making for 32 straight quarterly increases, Kroger said.

Earnings were down to $195.9 million, or $0.33 per diluted share, from $202 million, or $0.32 per diluted share in the same period last year.

In a conference call with analysts this month, Kroger President W. Rodney McMullen said the company had closed labor negotiations in Southern California, Ohio, West Virginia and Washington.

“Our objective in every negotiation is to find a fair and reasonable balance between competitive costs and compensation packages that provide good wages, high-quality affordable healthcare and retirement benefits for our associates,” he said.

RELATED:

Grocery strike averted with Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons

Grocery strike avoided; deal called 'win-win' for both sides

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo credit: Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press

Wal-Mart executives resign in China labeling scandal

Getprev

Wal-Mart said Monday it was replacing the head of its operations in China, the giant U.S. retailer's latest setback in the country after employees were arrested and detained last week in the western city of Chongqing in connection with a labeling scandal.

The company said in a statement posted on its website that Ed Chan, its chief executive in China since 2007, was leaving the company for personal reasons. Clara Wong, a senior executive for human resources, was also stepping down, the statement said.

Though Wal-Mart did not link the personnel moves to the controversy in Chongqing, the company continues to deal with fallout from charges that it sold about 140,000 pounds of pork over the last two years that was mislabeled as a more expensive organic variety. The added cost to consumers amounted to about $115,000, according to the city government's website.

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99 Cents Only shares jump after report of new takeover bid

99 cents only

99 Cents Only Stores Inc. has received a takeover offer from a private equity firm that tops an earlier bid from Leonard Green & Partners, according to a news report.

The New York Post said Thursday that Ares Capital Corp. made an offer for the City of Commerce-based deep-discount chain in the range of $22 a share, or about $1.55 billion. The paper cited two sources "close to the situation."

99 Cents Only shares rose 8.4% to $20.05 on the news.

In March, 99 Cents Only said it had received a $1.3-billion buyout proposal from its founding family and Leonard Green, a Los Angeles investment firm, to take the retailer private. Investors viewed that bid as too low and quickly pushed the stock price above the $19.09 a share offered by the Schiffer/Gold family and Leonard Green.

On Thursday, Eric Schiffer, chief executive of 99 Cents Only, declined to talk about the report or any possible bids. "We don't comment," he said. "As far as I know, other people shouldn't be commenting to anybody."

A spokesman for Ares also declined to comment.

The New York Post said private equity firm Apollo Global Management had also been vying for 99 Cents Only but dropped out several weeks ago "after struggling to line up debt financing at what it considered to be acceptable terms."

RELATED:

99 Cents Only stock jumps on expectations of new buyout offer

99 Cents Only gets a $1.3-billion buyout offer

EPA fines 99 Cents Only for selling unregistered or mislabeled pesticides

-- Andrea Chang

Photo: A 99 Cents Only store in Los Angeles. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Consumer Confidential: Self-checkouts, online videos, free checking

Supermarket checkout
Here's your mystic-pizza Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Do you find self-checkouts at the supermarket to be more hassle than they're worth? So do some supermarkets. Big Y Foods, which has 61 locations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, recently became one of the latest to announce it was phasing out the self-serve lanes. Some other regional chains and major players, including some Albertsons locations, have also reduced their unstaffed lanes and added more clerks to traditional lanes. Studies cited by the Food Marketing Institute found only 16% of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That's down from a high of 22% three years ago. Clearly most shoppers still favor the human touch.

--There's more scrambling afoot in the online-video world. Netflix has inked a pact with DreamWorks Animation SKG giving it exclusive pay-TV distribution rights for first-run films starting with the studio's 2013 lineup, while Amazon.com landed a deal with 20th Century Fox to provide movies and TV shows to bring its Amazon Prime streaming service to more than 11,000 titles. Financial terms of the agreements were not disclosed. Netflix is struggling to retain subscribers after raising prices and splitting the company into two separate services. Last week, satellite-TV provider Dish Network resurrected its Blockbuster brand as a streaming service.

--Free checking has become an endangered species. But it's still out there. A new study by Bankrate.com finds that only 45% of checking accounts are free this year. That's down sharply from 65% last year and 76% two years ago. But the study also found that most banks are willing to waive monthly fees when customers meet certain conditions. For example, customers may have to set up direct deposit or maintain a certain balance. The study also found that the average cost for using an out-of-network ATM rose slightly to $3.81. That's including the fees charged by the customer's own bank and the ATM operator.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Supermarket shoppers go through the traditional checkout. Credit: Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times

 

Report: U.S. spending billions of dollars to subsidize junk food

Twinkies 
A new report released this week has found that, among the billions of dollars spent each year in federal subsidies for commodity crops, a steady flow of these taxpayer dollars are going to support high fructose corn syrup and three other common food additives used in junk food.

The report, “Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food” by CALPIRG and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, studies the interesting question of whether the nation's problem with obesity is fueled by farm subsidies.

From 1995 to 2010, $16.9 billion in federal subsidies went to producers and others in the business of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils, according to the report.

The findings come as the White House has been rallying to battle childhood obesity, and Congress is poised to potentially either quash or curtail direct farm subsidy payments in the future.

So how much is America spending? Enough for each U.S. taxpayer to buy 19 Twinkies a year, according to the report. In comparison, it said, federal subsidies for fresh produce would cover only a few bites of an apple per taxpayer a year.

One of the more interesting findings: Taxpayers in the San Francisco area spend $2,762,295 each year in junk food subsidies, but only $41,950 each year on apple subsidies.

“If these agricultural subsidies went directly to consumers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year –- enough to buy 19 Twinkies but less than a quarter of one Red Delicious apple apiece,” CALPIRG officials said in a statement.

You can read an executive summary of the report, and get a copy of the full report, here.

ALSO:

Healthier fast food for kids?

Got alcohol? Gov. Brown legalizes flavor-infused drinks

Consumer Confidential: Soda warning; free Chick-fil-A meals

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: Hostess Twinkies. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / AFP

Consumer Confidential: New Citi bank fee, grocery strike closer

Citipic Here's your flash-in-the-pan Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- Another new bank fee? You betcha. Our friends at Citigroup say they'll start charging a monthly fee of $10 on checking and savings accounts with combined balances of less than $1,500, joining a growing list of banks seeking to recoup revenue lost under new financial industry regulations. The fee will be waived if a customer completes one direct deposit and one online bill payment per month through an account, or maintains a balance of at least $1,500 in checking and savings accounts. The change takes effect in December. Under Citi's current fee structure, customers are not required to maintain minimum account balances but must complete five transactions a month through an account to avoid a monthly fee of $8. Citigroup says it will not charge for debit card use or online bill payment. At least not yet.

-- We're another step closer to a SoCal grocery strike. Grocery workers could go on strike as soon as Sunday night in response to inaction on healthcare benefits. Eight months into contract negotiations, Southern California grocery workers issued a 72-hour notice Thursday night to cancel a contract extension and pave the way for a strike. A strike isn't guaranteed for workers at Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons, but canceling the contract removes the final barrier to a strike. In separate statements Thursday, all three grocers said they were disappointed in the union's move and they will remain in active negotiations. Let's hope a last-minute deal can be reached.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Citi has a new fee for account holders. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg

 

Labor talks between Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons and workers put on hold

Laborprotest 
The labor negotiations between Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons, and the seven United Food and Commercial Workers union area locals were temporarily put on hold Tuesday because the federal mediator responsible for overseeing the talks had to leave Southern California to deal with a family emergency.

The negotiations are expected to resume Thursday afternoon.

The labor negotiations, which have grown increasingly tense in recent weeks, are focused on hashing out deep divisions over healthcare benefits, worker scheduling and future staffing levels, according to sources familiar with the talks.

Officials from the UFCW and the three grocers have been meeting every day, and well into the night, for more than a week after a recent strike-authorization vote by union members that won strong support.

The labor contract that was approved in 2007 expired March 6. It has been extended day to day.

ALSO:

Grocery union vote backs strike at Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons

Strike could be looming at Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons supermarkets

Tensions mount as Southern California grocery workers protest outside employers' offices

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: Grocery workers protest outside the corporate headquarters of Albertsons in Fullerton in June. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Grocery union vote backs strike at Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons

Vote

Members of a union that represents 62,000 grocery workers at Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons supermarkets in Southern California voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if an agreement on a new contract can't be reached.

The strike authorization won the backing of more than 90% of the United Food and Commercial Workers members who voted, easily more than the two-thirds majority required, the union said.

The union said it would report the vote results Monday to a federal mediator trying to resolve the contract dispute.

Since the latest contract governing wages, healthcare benefits, and workplace rules expired in March. union and management negotiators have met more than 53 times. Healthcare benefits are a major area of contention.

Both sides said they would like to avoid a repeat of a four-and-a-half-month strike and lockout in 2003.

"We don’t want to strike," said Rick Icaza, president of the union's Local 770, the biggest of seven locals representing workers who would covered by a new contract. "We want to get back to work taking care of customers and our families. But the corporate owners of the supermarkets refuse to negotiate fairly to reach a compromise."

In a statement, Ralphs spokeswoman Kendra M. Doyel called the strike authorization a commonly used negotiating tactic and said it did not necessarily mean a strike would be called.

"Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons remain committed to reaching a contract that is good for our employees and keeps these union jobs sustainable for the future." Doyel said.

Daymond Rice, a Vons spokesman, said the negotiations "have not fully run their course. The employers intend to stay focused and engaged in the bargaining process. We remain hopeful that we can peacefully reach a settlement that works for both sides."

RELATED:

Tensions mount as Southern California grocery workers protest outside employers' offices

Strike could be near for Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons workers, union warns

Mediator called into grocery labor talks

-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: A supermarket worker casts her ballot Friday in Harbor City in a vote that authorized a strike against Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons in Southern California. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Consumer Confidential: Sin City beckons, grocery relief coming, toasters recalled

Vegaspic Here's your three's-a-crowd Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- Here's an economic indicator that things are looking up ... or not. Nevada tourism officials predict thousands of travelers will head to Las Vegas for the holiday weekend. A spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority says roughly 292,000 people are expected to visit Sin City through Monday. That's a 3% increase from the 2010 Fourth of July holiday. Hotel occupancy is expected to be at 92%, up from 89% last year. Visitors are expected to spend more than $179 million, excluding gambling dollars. Last year, Independence Day revelers generated a non-gambling impact of $173 million. I take this as either a sign that people have more cash on hand to go out and play, or that they figure the economy will never get better, so they might as well party while they can.

-- There may be some relief on the way for our grocery bills. Farmers have planted the second-largest corn crop in nearly seven decades, raising the prospect that prices for a variety of goods could be reduced. The size of this year's corn crop will be 92.3 million acres, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. That's 9% larger than the average annual corn crop over the past decade. This could ultimately make everything from beef to cereal to soft drinks cheaper at the supermarket. For all of 2011, the USDA predicts food prices will rise as much as 4%. It typically takes six months for changes in commodity prices to affect retail food prices.

 -- Heads-up: About 300,000 Hamilton Beach toasters are being recalled because of a fire hazard. There have been 15 reports of toasters that did not pop up as intended, including three reports of minor damage to kitchen cabinets. There were no reports of injuries. The recall involves model 22600 toasters, made in China. The toaster has a chromed steel exterior, a front control panel with a rotary toast shade selector and function buttons arranged in an arc. There's also a front removable crumb tray and "Hamilton Beach" printed across the front of the appliance. If you have one, Hamilton Beach says you should stop using it immediately and contact the company to arrange a free replacement.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Las Vegas is expecting boom times this holiday weekend. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

 

Tensions mount as Southern California grocery workers protest outside employers' offices

GroceryWorkers
As tensions continue to rise between labor and Southern California’s three leading grocery chains, hundreds of workers rallied outside of the local headquarters of Albertsons, Vons and Ralphs on Tuesday to protest possible cuts to their healthcare benefits.

The contract between the employers and the United Food and Commercial Workers expired in March, and members have authorized a strike. Negotiations are being conducted under the supervision of a federal mediator.

The three grocery chains are owned by larger corporations. Ralphs is owned by Kroger Co. of Cincinnati; Vons and Pavilions by Safeway Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.; and Albertsons by SuperValu Inc., of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Officials with area UFCW locals have said the chains want employees to pay more for premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Union leaders have said the latest contract proposal could result in some workers spending as much as 50% of their take-home for medical care. Many grocery union employees work far less than 40 hours a week.

And in a sign that the negotiations blame game is heating up, union officials on Tuesday accused the grocery stores of intentionally dragging their heels in the talks in order to gain potential political and economic advantages.

But as rank-and-file workers marched in front of Albertsons' regional headquarters in Fullerton, Vons offices in Arcadia and Ralphs in Compton, the grocery chains fingered area union leadership as being at fault for dragging out the negotiations process.

In a joint statement, the three companies said they presented their healthcare proposal to the union 42 days ago and have remained all along "committed to reaching an agreement with the union that is good for our employees and keeps our businesses competitive."

The employers added that they were “very disappointed with the response we finally received from the UFCW on Monday, which did nothing to address the rising cost of healthcare.”

Soon after, the UFCW’s Local 770 issued a statement that tossed the blame of stalling back at the grocers’ feet. “Managements’ proposal was a response to a union proposal made 47 days before that,” according to the local's statement.

The local added that “management only agreed to negotiate with grocery workers 12 days out of those 42 -- and most of those sessions were spent dealing with a pension issue” that had a June 30 deadline that needed to be met.

The talks are scheduled to continue next month.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

RELATED:

Strike could be near for Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons workers, union warns

Costs may come down for consumers

Mediator called into grocery labor talks

Photo: Grocery worker Marge Kohl uses the bullhorn during a labor rally in front of the Albertsons regional corporate headquarters in Fullerton over an ongoing contract dispute with Southern California’s big three grocery chains. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


Consumer Confidential: Wednesday night's alright for shopping; booster seat recall

Marketpic Here's your I'm-a-girl-watcher Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--When's the best day to hit the supermarket? Wednesday. At least that's what Lifehacker.com says. The website observes that supermarkets tend to reduce prices in the middle of the week on items that are expiring soon. It found this to be true in stores located in Arizona, California, Colorado and other Western states, and in grocery stores throughout San Francisco. MyGroceryDeals.com supported this conclusion, saying Wednesday is a hot day to buy groceries. The site also recommends shopping in the evening, or a couple of hours prior to closing, when perishables are typically reduced for quick sale.

--Heads up: Target is expanding its recall of Circo child booster seats due to additional reports of falls involving children. In some booster seats, the belt buckle opens unexpectedly, allowing a child to fall from the chair, the retailer says. Target has received 10 additional reports of booster seat buckles opening, including three reports of bumps and bruises when a child toppled out and hit an object or the floor. The seats, which were manufactured in China, were sold at Target stores nationwide from January 2005 to June 2009. The recall involves about 375,000 seats, including the 43,000 recalled in August 2009. They can be returned to any Target outlet for a full refund.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: For the best deals, hit the supermarket on a Wednesday, two websites say. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

 

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