Thursday, August 14, 2008

Clubbing the Supermarkets

The prospect of two new BJs Warehouse Club stores in Brooklyn has the NY Daily News' Albor Ruiz expressing concern: "Battered by rising rents and taxes, one-third of the city's supermarkets - about 500 - have vanished in the last 10 years. Big-box stores and drugstore chains are fast replacing traditional supermarkets, which in too many cases can no longer afford to stay in business."

The threat is very real, as local store owner Joe Verderosso tells Ruiz: "I have lived here all my life, and I know that many people are on tight budgets. They - especially the elderly - need a supermarket in their neighborhood," said the Brooklyn-born Verderosso, who has three children. "These club stores put everybody out of business. When they are no longer profitable, they close, leaving behind an empty building and a neighborhood in decay." As Verderosso goes on to say: ""I would have to close at least one of the stores," said Verderosso, who has been in business since 1984. "As it is, things are already tight with the high cost of electricity and rent."
Verderosso said his business has suffered since a BJ's opened at Starrett City. The new stores would be even more damaging."

And, of course, the box store not only has its labor problems but a food stamp one as well: "The BJ's Wholesale Discount Club's anti-union policies and the $45 membership fee it charges - an astronomical figure for many residents of these areas - are troublesome enough. Even worse is that as a matter of policy, BJ's stores do not accept food stamps or subsidies under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. This makes it all but impossible for the community to benefit from their discounted prices."

This policy is castigated by the NYC Coalition Against Hunger: "People need to have access to affordable food," said Alexandra Yannias of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. "Not accepting food stamps goes against the community needs." And what happens is that the local markets are left with the subsidized shoppers, while the higher income folks are culled away by the box stores.

This is not a recipe for survival, as the UFCW's Pat Purcell tells the News this is easily becoming a zero-sum game: "One of our issues with the warehouse club stores is also an issue with the mayor," said Grocery Workers Union organizer Pat Purcell. "The city did a study and determined that we need at least 100 supermarkets in the city, not more BJ's." But, as we told Ruiz, it's not possible to promote both box stores and local markets. The box stores suck out millions from the neighborhoods: "According to the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, BJ's stores gross more than a million dollars a week in sales and attract around 7,000 cars a day. Their impact on the existing supermarkets would be nothing short of devastating."

And there are twenty six mostly minority owned stores within a two mile radius of the BJs site on Avenue D. Bloomberg simply can't have it both ways: "Most of them are minority-owned independent Key Foods, Associateds, Pioneers and C-Towns. They came into these neighborhoods in the 1970s when the national chains fled and helped bring back the local economies. The Bloomberg administration has taken an interest in promoting and preserving the city's supermarkets, a worthy goal that the proliferation of discount club stores makes almost impossible to achieve."

The Alliance will be working with the local store owners, labor and the impacted communities. The Bloombergistas have to live up to their proclamations about supermarket retention. There aren't enough veggie peddlers to make up for the loss of our local food markets.