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Lack of Grocery Stores Plagues Columbus’ Inner-City Neighborhoods
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The latest installment of WOSU-TV’s Columbus Neighborhoods series is a film documenting the history of the King Lincoln district. Over the years the neighborhood has struggled to hold onto something most people take for granted: a grocery store. The King Lincoln neighborhood is not alone; so-called food deserts plague the inner city.
King Lincoln was not always a food desert. It had its share of grocery stores, none finer than Singletary’s on Mount Vernon Avenue, but it lasted less than a year. King Lincoln’s Melvin Steward:
“See when President Carter came here he asked us what else did we want and we wanted a supermarket and we built Singletary’s Supermarket,” Steward says. “President Carter sent $4 million in here to build it. It only lasted eight months.”
Singletary’s was a huge store, more than twice as large as its competitor down the street. It had high-end offerings, even selling caviar. So why was it so short-lived?
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman: “It just didn’t work for many reasons. And one of the lessons learned is that the building was too big. The square footage was too big. The cost to maintain it was too big,” Coleman says.
The inner city poses unique challenges to start-up grocers. Crime rates in neighborhoods like King Lincoln are higher than other areas. The majority of residents have modest incomes. Many are on government assistance, and they usually spend their allotment around the first of the month. That leaves grocers with three weeks of slow sales.
For a grocer, the low incomes and inconsistent level of sales don’t provide the return necessary for the required large capital investment. Tom Jackson is president of the Ohio Grocers Association.
“You don’t see a lot of big supermarkets there because quite frankly to open up a supermarket you’re looking at between $5 and $10 million investment,” Jackson says.
The return on that investment is difficult, Jackson says, because the profit margin selling groceries is extremely small.
“We’re a very high volume, low profit business. Our people make between one and two percent,” Jackson says.
Another industry representative is Jeff Brown, a member of the National Grocers Association, who’s also the president of a successful chain of inner-city Philadelphia grocery stores. Brown walks a tight-rope in order to make his urban stores financially viable.
“In our studies, reduced revenues and increased costs create about a five percent sales gap for a supermarket in a lower income urban area. And that’s an awful lot to overcome when you normally only have a one percent margin,” Brown says.
Brown says it takes shrewd planning as well as a mix of subsidies from city, state and federal sources.
“When a consumer has less income they cut out a lot of discretionary items that the industry counts on to pay its bills,” Brown says. “So to get affordable fresh food you need a regular grocery store and those tend not to be economically viable without some assistance.”
There are inner city success stories says Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman. He points to the 3-year-old Save-A-Lot store about a mile and a half south of the King Lincoln District.
“We got the Save-A-Lot on Main Street. And we did that and we worked really hard to get that Save-A-Lot on Main Street; the first significant grocery store in that neighborhood in a couple of generations. That’s a success,” Coleman says.
R.G. Kouns is the manager at Save-A-Lot. You can hear the energy and enthusiasm in his voice.
“It’s great to be part of a new birth,” Kouns says. “They’re renovating a lot of the buildings and giving new growth and new energy to the whole area. It’s great to be a part of that.”
Louise Johnson lives two blocks from Save-A-Lot. She says she appreciate the store’s location.
“Well, it’s very convenient,” Johnson says. “I usually go to Kroger but since this is here it’s even closer to me than Kroger. But I like this store, too.”
This Save-A-Lot is much smaller than the old Singletary’s but it offers what many corner groceries don’t; fresh fruits and vegetables and freshly cut meats. The store’s size is part of what makes it viable.
Again Tom Jackson of the Ohio Grocer’s Association “A Save-A-Lot or an Aldi’s format, they’re all very nutritious and very good, and it seems to me that those might be one area where we could maybe work on those under-served areas with that type of format, we’d have a chance,” Jackson says. “We don’t have as much investment, we don’t have as large a footprint; that smaller format might work in that community.”
The successful inner-city Philadelphia model might also hold answers that could lead to more urban grocery stores in Columbus. Jeff Brown says his stores are adding health clinics, banks, and pharmacies. They are, as Brown puts it, Main Street U.S.A. where customers shop several times a week and meet their friends and neighbors. In addition to receiving government subsidies, each store is tailored to its location.
“We spend a lot of time with our customers and our communities understanding what their needs are and customizing the stores to serve them for who they are as people,” Brown says. “And we’ve found that is equally as important as any financial assistance that we might obtain.” Save-A-Lot manager R.G. Kouns agrees.
“My goodness I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Kouns says. “And I probably know seventy percent of the people who walk into my store by sight, and it’s just a great customer base; just a great part of people that need a place to shop and we’re offering that opportunity where we can give them a good place to shop at a good economical price that they can afford.”