It's the holiday season, known for good will, cheer, giving and grocery store wars.
This year's supermarket confrontation was triggered by double coupons, a popular promotion that resurfaced last week after a two-year absence along the Wasatch Front.Dan's Foods, offering double value for coupons as "a Christmas gift" to loyal customers, started the program last week. Within days Smith's and Albertson's fired back with single- and double-page newspaper ads warning customers that double coupons only mask high prices.
Annual marketing battles among stores, which typically mushroom during the holidays, disturb Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Retail Grocers Association. But he said it comes with the territory.
"It's very competitive out there," he said.
But Dan's vice president Ted Gardiner called Smith's aggressive campaign the most vicious he has ever seen.
"I'm at a loss as to why such a large corporation would take such interest in a small local company like ours. They're a very large company trying to stomp on us with both feet."
While Gardiner may come across as the little guy struggling against a regional giant, Dan's seven stores have a strong, loyal following in Salt Lake suburbs, which Smith's doesn't take lightly. "They are a major competitor," Smith's President Jeff Smith said.
His reason for attacking Dan's double coupon campaign is to prevent losing customers to a "gimmick" that will cost consumers money. Smith said when his store stopped doubling coupons and lowered prices, operating margins fell and customers saved money.
"We did extensive research, and 80 percent said they preferred everyday low prices instead of double coupons," Smith said. The supermarket chain markets itself as "the certified low price leader," using accountants to run price comparison surveys among local grocers.
Gardiner calls certified price surveys a gimmick and says the claim that double coupons hide high prices is "hogwash."
"The only price survey that can't be fixed is when the consumer does the shopping and goes through the check stand," he said, noting since the double-coupon campaign began sales have shot up 20 percent over last year's holiday season. Dan's has run ads showing photos of smiling customers and the amount of money they saved with double coupons.
Olsen said his worst fear is the confrontation escalating into a price war, which he doesn't believe either store can afford. But, with Dan's planning to drop the double-coupon campaign at the end of December, a price war isn't likely.
"I can't foresee it turning into that," Smith said.
Asked if the war of words will make it awkward Saturday during the association's board meeting - in which officials from Smith's, Dan's and the other stores sit together to discuss issues affecting the entire industry - Olsen said: "They are always awkward. We just stick to things we have common stands on."