90.3 WBHM Calera-- Need another sign of the times? Head on down to Calera to the Cadle Auction House, where you might find more toilet paper and laundry soap than Waterford crystal and speed boats. WBHM's Tanya Ott reports.

Tommie Lynn Morrison races the clock. People are already packing her auction house in downtown Calera. Morrison's sons and grandson stack bottles of salsa and bags of beef jerky on tables. This is Morrison's second grocery auction. The first one, in March, was standing room only.

"Calera is a blue collar town. Our economy has always been based on plants that we have here and when they start laying off it affects everything."

One of Calera's largest employers, Lafarge Cement, recently laid off workers in this town of 9,400. Quarry operator Jerry Burke still has a job, but he expects more layoffs and he wants to stock up. He's here with his friend, Nancy Bunn.

"Money is tight right now and him being a man, doesn't know how to shop anyway (Burke: 'that's true") I said, 'come and buy bulk'."

Small grocery auctions have been around for years in the Midwest, but since January they've popped up in big cities and small towns across the country. Food prices have seen the worst inflation in nearly two decades, though they've dropped recently. At this auction, most prices are pretty good. A 20-pound bag of dog food goes for $5, less than half the normal price.

The food comes from a wholesale distributor in Mississippi. Some of it is past the "sell-by" date. The Food and Drug Administration does not prohibit the sale of most expired products. Still, Earl and Toye Bryant stick with fresher items they know their son will eat.

"Sweet Sliced pickles. He'll eat 'em by the gallon."

Business is down at the Bryant's property management company. Earl hasn't moved his bass boat in a year. And they don't see as many movies or eat out as often. Tonight they're stocking up on pork tenderloin, cheese and fruit juice.

"Yeah, it can get crazy and you just gotta have in the back of your mind what things cost so you know when to stop."

And that's the interesting thing about this auction. Unlike a regular auction, where there may be only one of a particular item, here there are multiples. The auctioneer inches up the price until bidding stops, then he offers that deal to everyone in the room who wants to buy.

"Anybody else want one for a dollar? Alright, ya'll just hold your hands up if you want one for a dollar. We'll get around to you."

That could keep prices low. But not when bidding frenzy sets in. At this auction, some people shell out $9.50 for a big box of cookies that's just $9 at Costco. Auction house owner Tommie Lynn Morrison says she does her best to keep prices reasonable. She struck a deal with the seller.

"If these people start bidding too much, let's stop it. Let's not let these people pay too much. They're here because they want a good buy."

Morrison says she didn't make much profit on this auction. Maybe enough to pay the power bill. But, she says, she'll eat the loss if it helps keep food on people's plates.


~ Tanya Ott, April 20, 2009.