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Close to 100 Kroger supporters made their voices heard during an hour-long rally in the grocery parking lot on Tuesday afternoon.
Petitions in hand, the crowd surrounded Melissa Turman, a local business owner who started the Facebook page “Save Kroger in Galax, Virginia” after it was announced that the branch would close on March 21.
“I have been calling and talking to everyone I can [in the corporate offices], and they are getting short with me, but I’m not giving up,” she told The Gazette that afternoon as she handed out pages of the petition to anyone who hadn’t signed it yet.
The rally, described as more of a “supportive gathering” by Turman since there was no picketing or riot-driven crowds, was originally scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m., but many showed up 10, 15 or even 20 minutes early. Attendees included concerned customers, former employees, current employees, local media and a representative from Sen. Mark Warner’s office.
The written petition was counted at 1,200 signatures before everyone’s arrival, and many more names were added as newcomers learned about the effort to save their store.
The Facebook page, as of Feb. 18, had topped 3,500 likes, and several other online petitions and letter-writing campaigns have cropped up, as well.
Turman explained that, while she still isn’t giving up hope, corporate representatives are getting a lot more terse with her in their responses to her pleas. “I sent emails to Joe Fey [the new president of Kroger], but someone else responded with the same generic statement we’ve heard, saying that they have to close and that they are receiving no profit. So I asked him, what is being done to cut expenses?”
But, she was turned down again when she asked a representative from the corporate office to come and talk to the crowd about the decision to close.
“We are hoping we can do whatever we can [to save the store],” said Teresa Anauo, a previous tenant of Northway Apartments, which are in walking distance of Kroger. “I used to walk here, because it was the closest place. If this place closes, it will be devastating [to those residents],” she said.
Another thing she will miss, she says, is the unique inventory. “Some of the stuff at Kroger, you can’t get nowhere else.”
Others in attendance had given up on the fight entirely. “Once they make up their mind, it’s done. It’s nice to have this here, but I think we’re all going to be disappointed,” said Robert Baker, a retired employee of 40 years.
Nancy Kettner had used Facebook before she left the house that morning to remind her friends about the event. “I’ve been shopping here for 45 years now,” she said. “The employees here are such nice people. They are so polite and they go out of their way to help their customers. You ask them for a jar of peanut butter and they take you straight to it.”
“Where at the big box stores, they would just stomp off,” said Jenn Shaffner, another supporter.
“And if they aren’t making money, they need to put in a deli, a pharmacy... When people come in here, they see the same darn floors, the same darn coolers, the same darn paint,” said Kettner. But, what makes her come back isn’t the aesthetics of the location, it’s the customer service.
An employee, who did not wish to be named in the article, told The Gazette that she had seen her coworkers go above and beyond for customers over the years. An example was a regular customer named James Rippey, who is confined to a wheelchair and has trouble getting around.
“One of our employees, Donald Harrison, gets him and pushes him around the store so he can get what he needs,” she said.
Staff has even delivered groceries to some of their regulars who have trouble getting around. Billy Mitchell of the Lions Club in Galax, a legally blind resident in the city, would walk to and from the store from his home nearby on Glendale Road, but caring employees took it upon themselves to start bringing what he needed right to his doorstep.
“Where is he going to get that kind of service now?” someone else asked.
As soon as everyone arrived, Turman addressed the crowd that had gathered, and shared a summary of her efforts so far. “This store has been in Galax [in different areas] for more than 80 years now, and [the corporation] started out in small communities. Now, they are closing them because of profit,” she said. “But, what they need to realize is that we don’t want to go to a larger store.
“I’ve been watching Kroger’s Facebook page, and I’ve noticed that most of their complaints are coming from their larger stores in bigger cities,” she continued. “I always take the time to tell them this doesn’t happen in Galax.”
Someone from the crowd mentioned that, as a store that mainly draws in elderly customers, a smaller store held appeal. “They don’t want to walk all over a huge store, they want to go straight to what they need and then get home,” the person said.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the battle to save Kroger, most agreed, was that they didn’t feel like their voices were being heard or appreciated. “I called Kroger about this, and they told me that they would give me a promotional card to visit their store in Mount Airy [N.C.].”
She replied to the representative that the deal would be impossible, since there isn’t a Kroger there.
The response that many have received, particularly through Facebook comments and emails, are apologies for the inconvenience that closing the store may cause.
Some take the word “inconvenience” as an insult. For others, it’s the repetition that frustrates them.
Turman said that she’s been frustrated by the possibility that the store will close as planned, and admitted that she’s stressed about finding another place to shop. If she can’t find similar deals, she will pay more for produce and other ingredients, meaning that her prices will have to go up to make up the difference.
What she’s working towards with her business isn’t primarily about profit: it’s about customer service.
“And that’s how Kroger should look at it, too,” a man spoke from the crowd.
“Shame on Kroger!” shouted someone else.
Turman has made it no secret that she doesn’t buy the claims of Kroger not making enough money, especially after the announcement that the company has just purchased the Harris Teeter chain.
In an email to The Gazette after the rally, Turman noted that she had heard someone state that Kroger wasn’t making enough money. “Making enough money or losing money... that’s the contradiction that keeps coming up,” she said.
With one month to go, customers are more desperate than ever to stop this change from happening.
“We want Kroger! We want Kroger!” the group chanted, before finally dispersing.
“Keep calling, keep emailing. We’re not giving up,” Turman told them.