Monday, October 12, 2009

Bogus Bodega Blast

The NY Post unleashed a calumny yesterday against the city's 13,000 bodegas and small groceries-accusing them, without any attempt at context, of price gouging: "What they lack in size they make up in price. New Yorkers know that bodegas hike the prices of staples such as toilet paper and milk, but they may not realize how high the markups have climbed. A Post price survey found that shoppers sometimes pay more than twice as much when they shop at their corner store compared with a supermarket. For instance, a quart of milk at the University Place Gourmet deli near Union Square sold for $2.25 last week, a dollar more than at the Food Emporium on the other side of the square."

Now what's missing here. of course, is any analysis of the cost of doing business in this town-something that Post columnist Kyle Smith underscores in an editorial in the Post yesterday: "New York City businesses that are stumbling through the recession are starting to feel like the screaming victims in horror movies (“The Devil’s Rejects” and others) who run away from the psychotic family of murderers only to be run over by an 18-wheeler. They barely survive an epic calamity to find that their taxes are being raised? The jobicidal maniacs in Albany and City Hall — The Market’s Rejects — are terrorizing business owners like Gil Cygler of Brooklyn, who owns All Car Rent a Car, one of the few locally-owned car rental businesses. He employs about 75 New Yorkers."

And Smith goes on to catalogue what Melissa Klein leaves out-a missing link that turns reporting into slanderous caricature. The fact is that the city's small groceries are going through a crisis of epidemic proportions, something that Albor Ruiz has catalogued earlier in the year: "Small, friendly and convenient, bodegas are more than businesses - they are veritable neighborhood institutions. Yet they are disappearing faster than you can say "stimulus package."

Yes, these "price gougers," are gouging so well that they are rapidly disappearing from the city as economic conditions worsen. Ruiz allows Bodega Association president, Ramon Murphy to make the case-something that the Post never bothered to do, even though they had consulted with us beforehand: "Ramón Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, and a bodega owner, is sounding the alarm about the state of the business to which he has dedicated 24 years of his life - and that has allowed him to raise four children..."Last year, 137 of them went down only along Broadway from 230th St. to 197th St.," Murphy added. "Hundreds of bodegueros [bodega owners] are throwing in the towel. Every day, two or three bodegas close in York."

So, in the middle of a real Main Street crisis, we get accusations of price gouging, go figure. But another missing piece here is that New Yorkers are at times being forced to shop at the higher priced convenience stores precisely because their local supermarkets have disappeared-and they don't have the time to go blocks out of their way to shop for a few staples. The Post captures a bit of this: "But many city dwellers are not willing to travel even a few blocks, which is why bodegas and other small groceries get away with pricey products, said Pace University marketing professor Larry Chiagouris. "The cost to the consumer is not just the price they pay at the checkout counter," he said. "It's the time they have to spend getting there, walking through the store, getting out of the store, and then going back to their home or office."

Or, in other words, we pay for convenience-just as we would if we went into the 7-11 in the suburbs. But all of this finger pointing is still in the wrong direction-and the accusations should be redirected to those elected officials who perpetuate New York City and State as the-almost-worst place to do business in the entire country.

Higher taxes, fees, and regulations continue to pile up and on the small businesses of New York-and Smith has the insight that Klein fails to bring to this discussion: "The mythical “green shoots” of the economy that we’ve been hearing about for six months? They’re getting cut down by the scissors-fingered tax man. ”The small business owner is “paying a rate that in California is reserved for millionaires, and California is the highest-tax state after New York,” says tax analyst E.J. McMahon, of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. So “stick it to the rich” turns out to mean “stick the knife in Mom and Pop.” Actually, what’s happening in New York is worse than a horror movie. You don’t have to be young and sexy to be at risk. From the low-wage workers who aren’t getting hired all the way to the midtown firms who are now paying $15 a square foot in property tax — or three times the rates of downtown Los Angeles — everyone is bleeding from the Taxes Chainsaw Massacre."

A discussion of gouging is germane-and should be a staple of the ghost mayoral campaign that has another three weeks to run before a grim reality, and honesty, reasserts itself after the brief post-election euphoria. But the gougers are really the folks we have elected to govern us-with lockjaw Mike Bloomberg at the top of the list. Has anyone heard him utter the nasty three letter word-tax?

It is past time for New Yorkers to wake up and realize that they need to put an end to five fingered discount government. If they don't, a bleak tale of two cities will be the legacy-can anyone say Detroit?