It started with this coupon Lillian gave me a couple of weeks ago when I was on my way to the grocery store—75 cents off if you buy two, two-pound packages of C&H dark brown sugar. As often happens on really good deals, at Central Market in Bismarck, the store I regularly go to on Geezer Day (Thursday, when senior citizens get 5 per cent off), they didn’t have any of that, so I stuffed the coupon in my jacket pocket. The next time I went to Dan’s in Bismarck, I checked the sugar section, and sure enough, they didn’t have it either. But what struck me about the sugar section at Dan’s was this huge long shelf of Dan’s store-brand white sugar, Flavorite. And the conspicuous absence of the sugar I’ve been eating all my life, when I eat sugar, which these days isn’t often: Crystal Sugar, with its trademark round red,white and blue logo.
Well, I didn’t give that much thought until I went to a second Dan’s store a few days later, and once again went to look for dark brown sugar. Nope. But I again noticed the absence of Crystal Sugar. I was standing there puzzling over that when the store manager, who I know in passing, walked by and asked me if I needed help finding something. I asked about Crystal Sugar. He said they did not carry it, except once in a while when there’s a special promotion. Hadn’t had one of those for quite a while. I asked if the absence of Crystal from his shelves had anything to do with the labor dispute over in the Red River Valley. He said no, they just don’t carry it.
And so, over the next few weeks, as I shopped (I do most of the grocery shopping at our house) I looked at the sugar sections of Bismarck stores. Here’s what I found.
You can almost always buy Crystal sugar at Central Market, and sometimes at Cash Wise. Its price is generally competitive with other products on the shelves in those stores—a few cents more per pound in the four-pound package, a few cents less in the ten-pound package (more about those four-pound packages later).
Dan’s three Bismarck stores, Wal-Mart’s two Bismarck stores, and Target don’t carry Crystal Sugar.
You probably know about the management-labor dispute at Crystal. In August, management locked the doors on union workers after the workers and management failed to agree on a new contract. Subsequent attempts to reach agreement have failed. The dispute is now in its fifth month. Workers are sitting at home while the company has hired scabs to do the work the union members formerly did. There’s no end in sight.
Now, I’ve always been kind of a union supporter, ever since one of my teachers in junior high explained that it was the organized labor movement that gave us a middle class in America. Those men (mostly) who built Henry Ford’s cars earned a decent wage, enough to allow them to afford to buy one of Henry Ford’s cars. Voila, houses with garages for working families, a car in every garage, and sugar in every cupboard. And America became a great country. But that’s neither here nor there.
American Crystal Sugar is one of the largest employers in the Red River Valley—around 1.300 employees I think. It’s a cooperative, owned by the farmers who grow the sugar beets which make the sugar. It’s also one of the few large unionized companies in the Valley. And that’s been good for everyone—the farmers, the workers and the managers. Until now. I spoke this fall with one of those farmers, and asked him for his take on this dispute. He said he didn’t understand the workers not wanting to accept the company’s offer—after all, they make more than $50,000 a year and have good benefits. He’s a friend, and I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I didn’t ask him how much he made last year, or how he feels about his board paying some of the managers a million dollars a year. I just replied that I was glad the workers were getting a good wage and good benefits.
And I guess if all this was not going on, and if I was not generally sympathetic to the workers, I wouldn’t have even noticed the Crystal Sugar missing from the shelves. Or cared about it. But now that I do, I’ve decided to forego my 5 per cent discount on Thursdays at Central Market and start shopping at Dan’s. Just because, by chance or a good business decision, they don’t sell Crystal Sugar.
Normally, I’d probably patronize a business that chooses, when it has a choice, to sell a North Dakota-produced product rather than a company brand produced somewhere else. But right now, I guess I think the growers and the Crystal managers are wrong, and so I’m going to show my support for the workers, who are facing a bleak Christmas, having not had a paycheck for nearly 5 months, with this little gesture.
Oh, and about that four pound bag of sugar. We don’t eat much sugar at our house, so we don’t buy it often. And when we do, we buy the smallest bag available. Generally, that’s the 5-pound bag. Or used to be. We just grab a bag when the sugar bin in the cupboard gets low and throw it in the cart. But sometime in the last five years or so, when the price of raw sugar started going up, most of the sugar companies switched from 5-pound bags to 4-pound bags. There was no big announcement. And while they shrunk the package, they did not shrink the price. In essence, they dropped a 20 per cent price increase on us, and I, for one, (okay, I guess it’s possible I’m the only one, but I hardly think so) never really noticed. Until last week. I was comparing prices when I was checking to see which stores sold Crystal, and something wasn’t making sense. The price of the 10-pound bag was more than twice that of the 5-pound bag. And I couldn’t figure out why. Until I looked at a bag very carefully and realized that the traditional 5-pound bag now weighed only 4 pounds. So I made another quick trip around to the grocery stores to see if that was the case everywhere. Here’s what I found.
Wal-Mart sells a 5-pound bag of Great Value Sugar for $2.84, and a 4-pound bag of C&H for $2.82. So people like me who weren’t paying attention were grabbing the name brand, C&H, and saving two cents to boot. Except we were getting a pound less sugar.
Target sells 5-pound bags too. Market Pantry is $2.79, and C&H is $2.89. (C&H is one of the few companies that still packages both 4 and 5 pound bags, to accommodate their retailers.)
But Central Market sells only 4-pound bags: Our Family for $2.78 and Crystal for $2.99. Cash-Wise is also selling only 4-pound bags too: Valu Time for $2.68, Food Club for $2.88, C&H for $2.98 and Crystal for $3.18. Dan’s was the priciest, selling 4 pounds of Flavorite for $3.19.
I checked a couple websites, too, and I found an interesting little note from the folks at C&H from back in 2009:
As many of our fans have noticed, the price of sugar has recently increased. In an effort to alleviate some of the confusion and frustration about this change, we wanted to formally address it here. As you may be aware, the price of sugar on the world market has nearly doubled since the end of 2008. In order to offset our cost increases, we have had to increase our price per pound of sugar.
In order to keep the cost per bag of sugar down, many retailers converted their store brand product from a 5-pound to a 4-pound bag. In an effort to maintain affordability we decided to do the same with our C&H® brand sugar. The reduction in size, however, is not enough to offset the cost increase in the remaining four pounds of the product. That’s why you’re seeing the price go up and the size go down at the same time. We understand the frustration and we assure you we are doing everything we can to maintain the value and affordability that our consumers expect from our brand.
I just LOVE their logic in the first sentence of the second paragraph: We’re keeping the cost per bag down. Now THERE’S a company with a great public relations arm, and I LOVE good public relations campaigns. We’re keeping that bag of sugar affordable. Never mind that the bag has 20 per cent less sugar. The cost of the bag will stay the same. You’ll figure out later—or perhaps you won’t even realize it—that you’ll have to come back for another bag sooner than you would have otherwise.
Well, anyway, matters at hand. I prefer to shop at a locally-owned grocery store, so I generally bypass Target and Wal-Mart. And Cash-Wise is a long ways from my house, so I hardly ever go there. Besides I hate to bag my own groceries. And since now that I know Dan’s is the only one not selling Crystal, I guess I’ll just go there for a while. Even though their sugar is the most expensive.
See, I don’t need to buy sugar for a while. I just checked the pantry downstairs. There’s a 4-pound bag of Crystal down there. Been there a good long while I’d say, but no expiration date on the bag. And at the rate we use sugar—for baking, and not much else–I’m probably good for another year or so. I think, though, that I won’t open it until Crystal unlocks its doors to its workers and brings them back to work.
Oh, and there is one good side to that 4-pound bag versus the 5-pounder. Every time I buy one, I’m buying 20 per cent fewer calories. Gee, I’m surprised the C&H people didn’t put that in their press statement. Hmmm, maybe there’s a job waiting for me there . . .
Merry Christmas, from our house to yours. And now, I’m going to go eat a couple Christmas sugar cookies.