Chocolate pricing

Meet the struggling supermarket owner determined to make it work

He loses money every day his new supermarket stays open. So why is he selling blocks of Whittaker chocolate for $3?

Chris Harris arrives at his new Tāmaki Makaurau supermarket before 6:30 a.m. most days. He unlocks the doors to FreshChoice Greenlane, greets customers, fixes flowers, cleans bathrooms, checks floors, and then goes down to the store to make sure inventory flows for promotions are running smoothly.

He will help you wherever you need him: restock shelves, scan groceries and even help with making coffees and washing up in the French cafe next door to the supermarket. As we talk, I hear him checking the lotto tickets. “Sorry honey, not a winner,” he told a customer.

At 70, Harris is busier than most his age, joking that he can’t even spell the word “retired.” Since opening his second FreshChoice supermarket in November, he’s been there almost every day, working 80-hour workweeks with his wife Juliette, starting at 6 a.m. and staying there until 6 p.m. “Then I go home and do all my admin,” he says.

Lately, however, all that hard work has not paid off. While his Half Moon Bay supermarket is a beloved community hub, trying to do the same in Greenlane has been problematic. Construction of the supermarket began in 2015, but the store only opened in November 2021, thanks to “nightmarish construction”.

Chris Harris during the difficult construction of his Greenlane supermarket. (Photo: provided)

Finding good staff has proven difficult, and opening amid the Covid-19 pandemic has also been inconvenient. “This [was] an absolutely stupid time to open,” Harris says. “It’s mid-November, it’s almost Christmas. People don’t know who you are. You are a brand new.

Even worse, the constant shoplifting. On Christmas, Harris lost $2,200 worth of booze to three different shoplifters in just one hour. Last Friday evening, three people tried to break down the front door with a hammer.

Harris owns the store, so all of those extra costs come out of his own pocket. After the construction of the supermarket goes over budget by millions, it starts to bite. “We haven’t recovered. We are underwater,” he said. “Last week we lost $25,000. It comes straight out of my wazoo.

It didn’t change his mindset. Harris has dreamed of owning a Greenlane supermarket for years and he is determined to make it work. It’s about building community, he says. “You have to remember… you’re dealing with people who have daily needs,” he says. “Their life can be a nightmare. If we can offer them something easier, we do. It’s a personal touch.

Harris has no backup plan. “We are here for the long term. I have a long tenure of over 30 years here. I know that at 70 it will see me in the grave,” he says. Then he jokes: “I need to get off the streets. This is a good thing.”

His perseverance may be about to pay off. Earlier this week, Harris’ daughter Sarah took to the local community’s Facebook page to promote her father’s supermarket. She had seen him struggling and wanted to help him. “This store has been very difficult,” she wrote. “Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong… If he doesn’t get more local support, I’m really worried about what’s going to happen. I ask you very kindly if you could support my father.

Facebook

Her post went viral, receiving hundreds of messages of support from across the country. This drew people’s attention to Harris’ store, which was overwhelmed with new customers. He had people offering to help and a local burger chain gave staff a free lunch.

“Things got crazy,” says Harris, who woke up to a barrage of messages from his new followers. “I was terribly touched by the fact that people supported him. I was not expecting that at all. His daughter says the love is deserved. “He has the best attitude, even when the shit hits the fan,” she says.

Harris thinks it’s an acknowledgment of her community spirit. “We saw a whole bunch of people come because of the post,” he says. There they will find that Harris is selling 250g blocks of Whittaker chocolate for just $3, by far the cheapest price in Aotearoa.

How can he afford to do this? He says he can’t afford not to. “Everyone buys it, gets it, shares it. We don’t make a lot of money with this, but it generates good [feelings],” he says. As we talk, he says to a customer who just bought five blocks, “This offer will last until Sunday.”

Supermarket
Chris Harris with his daughter Sarah (Picture: Supplied)

It’s the same reason Harris is offering half-price coffees to emergency services personnel and doing everything possible to track down customer-requested products. He knows supermarkets have a bad reputation at the moment, thanks to the outcry alleged duopoly price hike. (FreshChoice is owned by Woolworths under an owner-operator model, giving Harris more scope for brand selection and add-ons like coffee.)

But Harris is trying to change that attitude by simple adherence. That’s why he’s there every day, cracking jokes with customers, checking lotto tickets and stocking shelves. He’s fighting the good fight, and he won’t give up anytime soon. “It’s easy to be generous with people,” he says. “It’s hard to be a bastard.”