By RICK ROUAN
Vindicator staff writer
The Save-A-Lot store on the corner of U.S. Route 224 and Clingan Road in Poland on Tuesday morning did not look like a grocery store on the brink of closing.
Customers bustled in and out of the store. The pickets that have stood outside for two years continued their protest. Shelves were still full of groceries. But that all stops Wednesday at 9 p.m., when the store closes for the last time.
“Right now, you see, the store’s busy,” said Henry Nemenz Sr., the store’s owner. “It’s like the customers are coming to say their last goodbyes.”
The store opened four years ago, Nemenz said, after a study he commissioned concluded that a large percentage of people within a five-mile radius of the store are elderly and on a fixed income.
Those are ideal conditions for a Save-A-Lot store, which sells private-label brands that cost less than name brands, Nemenz said.
But soon after the store opened, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880 pickets arrived — and have stayed — to protest the lack of a union in Nemenz’s stores. Nemenz said the pickets have been outside the store for two years, but the union said it has been protesting the Poland store since October 2008.
The pickets, coupled with customers telling Nemenz that the store lacks variety, have sent the store’s profits into a 25 percent free-fall in the last year, he said.
“It hurts to close it, but when it comes down to a financial decision, you have to make it,” said Nemenz, a 52-year veteran of the grocery business.
Some of the store’s customers were traveling the aisles for the last time on Tuesday.
Al Haire said that he shops in the store two to three times a week.
“We came here because prices were low,” said Haire, 57, of New Middletown. “I’m just so disappointed.”
For Laura Brammer, the closing will affect her family twofold: she loses her grocery store and her niece, a Save-A-Lot employee, will have to change jobs.
The prices at Save-A-Lot, Brammer said, are cheaper than other stores in the area.
“I count on the savings here to stay within my budget,” said Brammer, 48, of Struthers. “You have to know your prices.”
When the Poland store closes, Nemenz said he will own seven Save-A-Lot stores and that his son owns 10 stores. Nemenz also owns IGA grocery stores in the area.
The Poland store’s 15 employees will be reassigned to one of the Nemenz-owned Save-A-Lots or IGA grocery stores. Inventory from the closing store will be distributed among the other stores.
“A lot of people that are shopping here now will go to our other stores,” Nemenz said.
The Save-A-Lot chain has a relatively limited variety of products compared to other grocery stores. At Nemenz’s Save-A-Lot stores, he said he carries about 10,000 different bar codes compared to about 30,000 in IGA.
The store could reopen as an IGA, Nemenz said, but he does not have a timetable on when the necessary studies would be complete and a decision made. To reopen as an IGA likely would require knocking down a wall to expand the store floor, he said.
Pickets outside the store on Tuesday afternoon deferred to the union’s office for comment. Local 880 will respond only to written questions.
In a statement the union released, Local 880 President Tom Robertson said that the pickets’ purpose is to advise the public that Nemenz stores are “non-union stores and anti-union stores.”
Nemenz has closed stores before when profits dipped, but he said he prides himself on taking stores that were closed and making them profitable.
While Nemenz decides whether to re-open the Poland location in another form, customers say they will miss the prices Save-A-Lot provided.
“I can come here and I get double the amount of groceries for $50 here as I do [at other stores],” said Angelica Mrakovich, 38, of Poland.