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In Washington, D.C., there's one supermarket chain that seems to have a little more character than the rest--Safeway. I talked to Craig Muckle, the public affairs manager for all the East Coast Safeway grocery stores and he told me that in D.C., the Safeways--and only the Safeways--have nicknames.

"We've heard anything from the Social Safeway, to the Secret Safeway, and most recently with our new city vista store on 490 L street NW, the Sexy Safeway," Muckle says.

And don't forget Craig's least favorite nickname: "the Soviet Safeway."

All of these nicknames are based on the stores' reputations. The Soviet Safeway is supposed to be brutal, with empty shelves and long bread lines reminiscent of long winters under Stalin. The Social Safeway is supposed to be like a constant singles night. And the Sexy Safeway, the newest of them all, has that ultra modern, boutique look to it.

The list goes on.

It's good fun, but it all seems like way too much personality for a national chain store. I decided to investigate, starting with the Soviet Safeway.

But as soon as I step in, I know that I'm not in the USSR.

The store is small. A lot of the aisles are ridiculously narrow, and all the carts are half the size of a normal cart. But as I walk through the store, it's a struggle to find that Soviet poverty that I've heard so much about. Here I am now, in the rather well stocked bread aisle.

"Well they're a little low on Hostess snack cakes, I can point that out. You know to be honest I'm a little disappointed. This is not what I thought a grocery store in Soviet Russia might look like."

So, how to explain the nickname? A nearby shopper, David Warner, helped me understand.

"It's improved a lot in the last couple of years. I don't think it has much of a nickname anymore. I still hear it but not as often as I used to. I've been in the neighborhood 25 years and it was the only way people would refer to the Safeway years ago and now, they just call it Safeway," Warner Says.

Some people still use these nicknames, but, for the most part, David's right. It's gone out of style.

=="no" montage==

For me, this was really disappointing. I liked the idea of all these big supermarkets having their own identities and personalities. I'm already nostalgic for the days when every store had a nickname that everybody used. But shoppers like David don't miss those times at all.

"It was a bad experience. It was the only store in the neighborhood that was accessible. And there was no competition, so they pretty much got away with a lot of stuff that...the store wasn't very wholesome, their floors were dirty...," Warner says.

It used to be that the local Safeway was the only option for a lot of a neighborhoods.

Now that people have more choices, Safeway has had to clean up their act. They offer more of a selection now, and they're redesigning their stores to make them look more upscale, more health-food oriented, and more friendly.

David loves it.

"It's improved a lot in the last few years. It's remarkable in fact," Warner says.

But at the same time, it's come at a cost: it's made them more similar. Just ask Harry Tosin, a shopper at the hard to find Secret Safeway.

Scott: Do you think all Safeways are the same, or... Harry: All of them are the same. All Safeways are good. I go to all Safeways, but I prefer this one. To me, out of fairness, it's more comfortable. It's a comfortable Safeway to come to where you don't have to be in a hurry.

I think Harry's right that there's comfort in this sameness. When you wander through a Safeway, you're in every Safeway. You know that the bread aisle is on one side of the store with the wine and the produce is on the other side, near the condiment aisle. You've got the Safeway brand foods, the Safeway muzak on the speakers, and that friendly red S everywhere you look.

Even if you've never been there before, you're not lost. You know exactly where where you are.

For Intern Edition, I'm Scott Pham.

 

NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008