SACRAMENTO — Christmas brings The Salvation Army's red kettles, February the Girl Scout cookies, and March the petitioners asking for signatures to put a measure on the ballot. The faces change, but it seems there's always someone camped outside of grocery stores in California demanding your attention.
Lately, however, this cast of characters is going away. Faced with customer complaints of harassment, big retail chains have been banning all solicitors from their doors rather than pick and choose which groups are allowed. The latest company to do so is Raley's. Its policy took effect in April.
"In general, the complaints were that they felt intimidated or pressured to sign petitions or donate funds or buy products from solicitors," Nicole Townsend, spokeswoman for West Sacramento-based Raley's, said of the firm's customers. She said customers sometimes even were followed to their cars and police had been called when customers felt harassed.
Townsend said Raley's has received thousands of customer complaints and that a no-solicitation policy was the only fair solution. "We cannot permit some groups and prohibit others," she said.
She said the store will continue to support the community through its Food for Families program and Raley's Reach, which makes grants to local schools and charities.
Target, Safeway and other large retailers have adopted similar policies in recent years. Brenton Pierce, a Safeway customer interviewed outside the chain's store at 19th and S streets in Sacramento on Wednesday, said he has never had a problem with the Girl Scouts, but other solicitors bothered him.
"A lot of these other organizations were political organizations or activist organizations and they were kind of intrusive," Pierce said.
Safeway: Girl Scouts still OK
A Safeway spokesman told The Modesto Bee that its policy has some flexibility that still allows Girl Scout cookie sales.
"Safeway's customers for decades have appreciated the chance to support the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and The Salvation Army in front of our stores," Keith Turner, the firm's director of public and government affairs, wrote in an email.
"In deference to what our customers want, we allow these groups to be present occasionally. We also will consider limited fund-raising by local nonpartisan community groups on a case-by-case basis, where there is widespread community support for such efforts. We do not otherwise allow fund-raising or issue advocacy," he wrote.
Raley's no-solicitation policy includes the Girl Scouts, but the organization is talking to the grocer about working together, said Linda Farley, CEO of the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California chapter.
"Raley's has been a great partner for many years, and we're looking for ways they can still partner with Girl Scouts," she told The Modesto Bee in an email. "Our focus is always to support our girls and volunteers, and we're planning ahead to find the best ways to help with the efforts of securing booth sales for a successful cookie season ahead."
Farley said she is grateful for Raley's support over the years. "The complaints are not about the Girl Scouts," she said. She said the organization will continue to sell its cookies at hundreds of other retailers.
Marilyn Johnson, one of several volunteer service unit cookie managers in the Modesto area, echoed Farley's comments. "Raley's has always been such a strong supporter of Girl Scouts, and we've always appreciated it, and it would be very sad if it had to change."
Policy in place elsewhere
Losing high-traffic grocery stores as spots to set up cookie sales tables will be a blow, she said, but added, "We learn to work with what we're allowed," noting that other big stores, including Home Depot and Costco, have not allowed cookie sales outside, but Lowe's has.
Wal-Mart stores, with their high customer traffic, are popular spots for veterans groups, Scouts, youth sports programs and other nonprofits looking to raise money or awareness. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the mega-retailer has no plans to pull the welcome mat.
"For nonpartisan organizations and nonprofit groups that would like to raise funds outside our stores, we'll continue to permit that as long as it's consistent with our rules and guidelines," Ashley Hardie said. Such agreements typically are arranged at the individual store level, she said, so groups that want to set up outside should reach out to store managers.
The Salvation Army, whose red kettles have been seen outside Raley's and other retailers for decades, will continue to seek donations outside other stores.
"Raley's has been a friend of The Salvation Army for many years," said Bill Dickinson, a Sacramento-area divisional commander for the group. "We look forward to working with them in the future on other ventures."
Modesto Bee local news editor Deke Farrow contributed to this report.