While it's generally acknowledged that both sides of a labor dispute lose in the event of a strike, third parties do have something to gain.

Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive of Stater Bros. Holdings Inc., said his stores had already seen a small increase in sales last week, as shoppers began to prepare themselves for a grocery strike that, if it comes, would affect Ralphs, Vons/Pavilions and Albertsons stores.

"We've seen a slight uptick in some areas of produce, Pampers, baby food, those kind of special items that a family feels they must have," Brown said. "They stock up on them more than they would normally."

To handle the increased demand, Stater Bros. itself has begun to stock up on some of these consumer staples.

But the real increase in demand for Stater could come in the next few weeks if a strike or lockout takes place at the so-called "big three" supermarket chains. As of late last week, talks remained stalled between the Food and Commercial Workers Union and representatives from Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons. The union had threatened to hold a strike vote on June 24.

"We may see some new faces next week," Brown said of the prospect of a strike or lockout occurring. During the 2003-2004 strike, Brown said his stores located near one of the big three chains experienced a 25 percent increase, stores in proximity to all three grocery chains saw 40 percent increase in business, and those without major chain competition nearby saw no change.

"When the strike was over, most customers went back to where they were shopping before," he said. Colton-based Stater Bros. has 163 supermarkets in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Meanwhile, at Whole Foods Market Inc., Southern Pacific Region Marketing Director Marci Frumkin said the grocery chain is "conducting business as usual," at least for now. "We have the ability to stock our shelves as needed per demand," she said.

Furthermore, Frumkin said that several smaller Whole Foods stores have been expanded since the last strike and are now able to accommodate larger crowds. A spokeswoman from Gelson's Market (a unit of Arden Group Inc.) said the chain had no comment, while a spokeswoman from Trader Joe's Co. maintained things were "business as usual" at all of its stores.

Retail consultant George Whalin said that whatever their public stance, all local grocery stores have plans in place to deal with any increased customer flow resulting from a strike.

"Any smart retailer will recognize this opportunity," said Whalin, who is president of Carlsbad-based Retail Management Consultants.

Whalin added that in the event of a strike or lockout, it would take at least 10 days or two weeks before other stores were affected enough to risk depleting stocks or not being able to process the extra customer flow. At that point, these stores would hire more stockers and checkout personnel and schedule more deliveries.

For now, though, Stater Bros.' Brown is in good shape. His firm signed a three-year contract this past January with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union providing for a pay increase and the elimination of the two-tier program, in which newly hired workers have fewer or no health benefits. Still, he says, his company's benefit from the strike brings him no joy.

"I understand management and labor have two different views," he said. It's a shame that everybody has to suffer."

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