Want groceries in Detroit? Hit the suburbs


July 5, 2007

Grocery closings hit Detroit hard

City shoppers’ choices dwindle as last big chain leaves

Joel J. Smith and Nathan Hurst / The Detroit News

DETROIT — Colleen Rogers isn’t looking forward to crossing the street to shop for even a few groceries.

The store, a locally owned market, is convenient, just steps away from the beauty shop where she works on Livernois in Detroit. But what troubles her is its higher prices, lack of variety and the low quality of fruit, vegetables, meats and other food — staples Rogers could find every day in abundance at the Farmer Jack store near her home that is about to close.

“Sure, there’s other grocery stores, but try finding something to eat in there,” said the 34-year-old skin care specialist. “You can’t buy quality food in the city anymore.”

The lack of major grocery stores has long been a quality-of-life problem in Detroit and one reason some families don’t want to live in the city. Now, however, the situation is getting worse as the last two Farmer Jack stores in the city prepare to close by Saturday.

If no grocery stores buy the Farmer Jack locations from the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Detroit will be left without a single national chain supermarket, much less a Wal-Mart or Meijer superstore or a Costco-style warehouse store.

Analysts say no other major city in America is such a supermarket desert. And it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Recent efforts by city officials, developers and community activists to woo a supermarket have been unsuccessful. Major grocery chains, which generally operate with thin profit margins, say doing business in Detroit is no-win situation. High employee turnover, cost of security and loss from theft are often cited. The city’s comparably low income rates preclude selling an abundance of high-profit, upscale items.

The situation has left regular shoppers at the Farmer Jack stores — one on East Jefferson and the other on Livernois at Seven Mile — with two choices: drive the suburbs to shop if they have transportation, or buy groceries at smaller stores near their homes.

“Why should we have to go elsewhere to find a trustworthy store?” asked Joe Lanier, a longtime shopper of the Livernois Farmer Jack who owns a nearby business. “It’s ridiculous you can’t buy all the groceries you need in Detroit.”

High cost of doing business

Within its 139 square miles, Detroit has 155 grocery stores, defined as various-size food markets with meat and produce. The city also has 1,000 convenience stores — including gas stations and party stores — that sell some type of food.

A 2003 University of Michigan study of Detroit supermarkets showed there were only five grocery stores in Detroit with over 20,000 square feet. The report concluded that the city could support 41 supermarkets with at least 40,000 square feet of space based on its population and spending habits.

Over the years, national chains have located in Detroit, only to pull up stakes and flee. There are a multitude of reasons, according to retail analysts, with the major deterrent being the high cost of doing business in the city.

“Sometimes even the people that live in the neighborhood don’t feel safe shopping in the store,” said David J. Livingston, a supermarket expert from Wisconsin. “They’ll drive right past that Detroit store to go to a suburban store where they feel more comfortable.”

While crime is a concern, Matt Allen, press secretary for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, said the issue should not be used as an excuse by the big chains to avoid Detroit.

“In certain areas where the socioeconomic is probably at the lowest end of our society, there are a lot of desperate people,” Allen said.

But, he added, businesses can take measures to prevent theft.

“(Businesses) have added lighting, changed the heights of the counters, put the registers in certain places — security by environmental design. It all helps,” he said.

Detroit also suffers from a lack of strip malls with tenants to serve everyday needs. Large supermarket chains don’t like to open stand-alone stores, said Ken Dalto, a retail expert from Farmington Hills.

“Larger supermarkets have a better chance of surviving if they are located in strip malls where people can do one-stop shopping,” Dalto said. “If you don’t have these anchor spots at strip malls, you aren’t going to get the large chain supermarkets.”

A number of the city’s major developers and economic growth officials said efforts to draw a national grocer to the city have met tepid responses.

Midtown Development President Robert Slattery said he showed a plan for a 12,000-square-foot store with 65 parking spaces to specialty grocer Trader Joe’s, but the company didn’t bite.

His company and Wayne State University are still working to lure a new market to Midtown.

Expired food is a problem

Most independent food stores in Detroit are owned and operated by Chaldeans, some of whom have been in business for 40 or more years. A few are owned by African-Americans.

Martin Manna, executive director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Southfield, said Chaldeans have stepped in as A&P, Farmer Jack and Kroger have abandoned the city.

“There usually is a market within walking distance of nearly every area of Detroit,” Manna said. “It might not be a supermarket. That might be why there are so many people eating potato chips rather than wholesome foods in Detroit.”

Although shoppers may complain prices are higher at independent stores, independent grocers said they strive to be competitive, even with the high costs of running a store in the city.

While there are clean, well-run stores scattered throughout the city, many don’t offer the variety and selection of a Farmer Jack.

Many residents rely on convenience stores for bread, milk, eggs and snacks. Small stores that do offer meat and produce often sell food past its expiration date, shoppers said. The city has raided stores over the years to crack down on sales of expired food, but many say the problem still persists.

Pat Hollins, an activist with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, told of stopping in a small neighborhood grocer several weeks ago and immediately finding two expired packages of breakfast sausage.

ACORN has been picketing stores it contends have been selling expired meats and unhealthy foods.

“We have problems with meat and produce being expired,” Hollins said. “We have no security in the parking lots, no restrooms in the stores and a poor selection of food products. When you cross Eight Mile, these problems all disappear. The poor folks, who don’t have transportation to the suburbs to shop, are being taken advantage of.”

‘Where’s the justice in that?’

Without chain grocers in her neighborhood, shoppers like Cheryl Coleman, who lives just blocks from the Farmer Jack on East Jefferson, will have to travel much farther for low-priced sundries.

“I’m sure going to miss this store,” Coleman said. “I got everything I need here, just everything. We need a good grocery store in the city, right here on Jefferson.”

She said she’ll probably end up shopping at a Kroger in Grosse Pointe. “It’s either Kroger or the little local store,” Coleman said. “And they don’t always have everything I want.”

Gordon Alexander, 52, who lives on the city’s east side, said suburbanites have it good compared to Detroiters.

“There is only one store in the city I’ll pick up some stuff at, but my kids jokingly call it the ‘ghetto store’ because everything is subpar,” he said. “Some of these stores make the argument that they are catering to black clientele, so they have to make room to carry stuff like ham hocks and chitterlings, but that’s just an excuse for bad quality.

“Here we are, trying to revitalize the waterfront and make this city whole again, but people who live here can’t even find something decent to eat. Where’s the justice in that?”

You can reach Joel J. Smith at (313) 222-2556 or jsmith@detnews.com.

National chains stay away from Detroit
Here are some reasons cited by national retail experts on why brand supermarket chains avoid Detroit:

  • Net profits at supermarkets run 1-5 percent of revenue. If shoplifting by customers and employees runs 7-8 percent, the store is doomed to lose money.
  • High cost of maintaining security for the stores, something most suburban locations don’t need. Shopping carts often disappear, at a cost of $300 per cart.
  • Personal safety for employees, with robberies, thefts and assaults both inside and outside the stores.
  • Difficulty finding qualified managers willing to run Detroit stores. Most prefer the suburban locations.
  • Problems seeking qualified workers for the stores. It can be a major undertaking to find employees who can pass reading, writing and math tests along with credit, criminal background and drug tests. And there is a constant turnover of employees at stores in the city. “It’s a human resource nightmare,” said David J. Livingston, a supermarket expert from Wisconsin.
  • Declining population. No national chain wants to move into an area that is losing population.
  • Lower per-capita income. That means less expenditure on food.
  • Racism and discrimination accusations. If the store raises its prices because of higher costs of doing business, it is often charged with gouging the poor.
  • A well-publicized violent crime or armed robbery can cost the store 10 percent of its business. Three such crimes, experts say, and the store may as well close its doors.
    Source: Supermarket experts

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    ~ by Keith A. Owens on July 5, 2007.

    3 Responses to “Want groceries in Detroit? Hit the suburbs”

    1. I was watching the news tonight & they were showing some shoppers who voiced their concerns for not being able to get quality food in their neighborhood & I saddened by this. It is a shame that there are no good viable options for Detroiters especially for those who are transportation challenged.

      What are the jitnies going to do now???


    2. Hey, this is happening everywhere. OK for those who live in a rural community. Live in a city, you’ve got a problem that is getting worse. What can we little guys do about it?

    3. Hey Baz!

      Thanks for stopping by. When you sauy “little guys” what do you mean exactly? Are you referring to small grocers, or just the regular ‘folk’ trying to figure out how to make it in this situation? Or something else?

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