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New Safeway opens Friday

Crews worked around the clock for weeks to prep Medford's 3rd

The construction, painting and basic setup were done when newly named manager Jim Cox walked into Medford's newest Safeway Food and Drug store a month ago.

The gondolas -- grocery talk for aisle shelving -- were being put in and construction dust still covered some of the Crater Lake Plaza store.

We dusted and cleaned the gondolas and started ordering the products, says Cox, describing the first order of business.

— — — Photos by Jim Craven

Produce clerk Brad Morrell organizes citrus fruit Wednesday in the new Safeway store in — Crater Lake Plaza. Nonperishable items started arriving at the store Nov. 30, but — employees were busy Wednesday putting out fresh items and performing last-minute tasks in — preparation for the store's opening Friday. — —

We wipe it down and fill it up, adds Larry Levens, the Southern Oregon district manager.

The cleaning began Nov. 23 and the nonperishable merchandise started arriving Nov. 30. A few weeks later, the shelves are full and Cox is being peppered with the usual last-minute questions, ironing out glitches and making sure everything is just right.

Medford's third Safeway opens at 7 a.m. Friday. Workers will spend today putting the finishing touches on months of work at the 55,000-square-foot store, which is 7,000 square feet bigger than the Medford Center version.

The new store will be Safeway's fourth in Oregon this year alone, bringing the chain's total to 94 in the state. But even for a large national chain, it's no meager task to get a new store from a vacant lot to the grand opening.

In the hyper-competitive world of chain grocery stores, expansion isn't a once-in-a-while priority.

You are always looking and saying, `How do my facilities stack up?' says Bridget Flanagan, Safeway's regional public affairs director. It never stops.

It's been a number of years that we've been looking at another store in Medford, adds Levens, looking for the right location, the right demographics.

The market studies and research on the Crater Lake Plaza site were done well before construction began in early summer. After construction was complete, the job for people like Cox was just beginning.

Safeway started hiring for the store about two months ago. The new store created 160-170 jobs in the valley.

New employees spent a day in orientation before being farmed out to other local stores -- mainly in Medford and Ashland -- to gain hands-on experience.

Leela Egan was among them. The 42-year-old Medford woman worked as a plugger at Boise Cascade's plywood mill before it burned down in September. She took another mill job briefly but jumped at the chance to work for Safeway.

I didn't want to stay in mills, she says. I have a girlfriend that works at Safeway and she's always saying how great it is.

Egan has spent the past month at the Medford Center Safeway, learning to be a courtesy clerk -- bagging groceries and helping people take them to their cars. The work was harder than she expected but she says her fellow employees helped her get the hang of things.

Everybody's been so great about helping me -- it's been so hectic I'm surprised anyone's had time, she says.

That's the kind of interaction Safeway's management is banking on to get the large number of newer employees up to speed.

That mix has got to be there, says Cox. He would know.

The Crater Lake Plaza store will be the third Safeway in the Rogue Valley that he's managed as it opened. Cox was at the helm when the Medford Center store opened in 1987 and when the Grants Pass one opened in 1984.

Cox, who has been with Safeway 31 years, managed the Medford Center store until November, when he was assigned to the newest store. Since then, things have moved quickly.

The first to arrive of the 35,000 items the store will carry started showing up Nov. 30. Since then, someone has been at the store 24 hours a day, seven days a week to handle new shipments.

We average two to four a day, Cox says, and one shipment could be a couple of trucks.

Stocking has also been done 24 hours a day, though most of that will shift to overnight once the store opens. There's also arranging direct deliveries on items like soda and beer, getting scales and measurements inspected and a host of other logistical things.

Despite the load, officials say things have gone smoothly -- thanks in part to store set-up personnel who travel from place to place to open new locations.

The target is 5 p.m. today, when an open house and ribbon cutting ceremony featuring Medford Mayor Jerry Lausmann and other officials is scheduled to begin.

But the really big moment will be Friday morning when the first customers walk through the doors.

Our mission is to get the clerks ready to handle a huge influx of people, Levens says. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

We're hopeful that as we open the store we are up to speed -- and we feel we are.

Louise Harris, of Stayton, checks computer bar codes for accuracy Wednesday. Harris is part of a traveling team that sets up new Safeway stores. Each of the store's 35,000 items is scanned for accuracy before the store opens. - By DAVID PRESZLER