There has been a spate of publicity in the consumer press lately about the fact that it's more difficult to find a well-run, low-priced supermarket in an inner-city area than in a suburb. That should come as little surprise since it's been true to some degree for more than a generation. But evidentially, it does come as a surprise to researchers and pressure groups. And some seem to sense that an ugly conspiracy intended to drive up the cost of groceries available to the impoverished is afoot.
Ironically, this sort of publicity is coming just at the time that the supermarket industry itself is awakening to the notion that it can be not just right, but also profitable to run inner-city stores.
To cite one recent example of publicity about the paucity of inner-city stores, the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, Washington, issued a statement based on data gathered by the University of Connecticut which found that "the number of supermarkets per capita was 30% lower in the lowest-income zip codes than in the highest income zip codes. In addition, supermarket floor space per capita was almost 60% less in the poorest zip codes than in the richest."
Public Voice's "grocery-store gap" achieved wide publicity with its conclusion that "people in low-income neighborhoods have far less access to supermarkets -- and therefore pay more for less healthy food -- than those in more affluent areas."
The question of whether the supermarket industry should have abandoned the inner city might be debated for quite a while, but the fact is, chain stores of all types generally followed the affluent segments of the post-war population to the suburbs. Chains that failed to do that paid a substantial profit penalty, and some just didn't make it. But reseeding the nation's inner cities with supermarkets is easier said than done. In many urban areas, building a big store may involve assembling small tracts of land, and dealing with overt opposition. The latter hurdle is one Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J., had to clear in its recent bid to win permission to build a full-fledged supermarket in East Harlem, New York. By the way, Pathmark is an excellent candidate to operate a store in any inner city area owing to its favorable experience with another inner-city neighborhood: About five years ago, Pathmark opened a supermarket in a part of Newark, N.J., that had not seen a supermarket since the riots of 1967. Actually, Pathmark has long been involved in inner-city retailing, is on a Public Voice task force and Pathmark Chairman Jack Futterman heads the Food marketing Institute's Urban Initiatives Task Force.
Despite that, Pathmark's plans for the East Harlem section of New York City store grew increasingly problematical as opposition to the Pathmark grew on Manhattan Borough Board. Opposition was fueled by the arguments of small-store owners who expressed the concern that they risked being put out of business by the supermarket. To that point, one Pathmark executive told me that just the opposite happened when Pathmark opened a store in Yonkers, N.Y., a couple of years ago; both the tone of the neighborhood and volume of traffic increased to the benefit of small-store owners. In any case, Pathmark's plan for East Harlem finally won an important approval when at the last moment Guillermo Linares, a Borough Board and City Council member, switched his position and voted for the supermarket. It's hoped that later this month, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani will give final approval to the project and that by late next year, shoppers will have their new supermarket.
There's at least a couple of lessons here: · Residents of inner city areas must want supermarkets very much if they can help direct a big-city councilman to withstand fierce political pressures and do what he thought the people wanted. And, people who want a store that much will patronize it.
· And, if Pathmark manages to plant a supermarket in the midst of the politics of New York City, it should be possible almost anywhere.