Can chain supermarkets make a go of it in poor urban neighborhoods -- or are they all destined to disappear as casualities of crime, deterioration and red ink?
The decision by Safeway Stores to close its outlet in central Anascostia -- which threatens to leave an extimated 10,000 black, low-income residents with nothing but small, higher-priced food markets -- is part of a national trend. The number of supermarkets in cities has declined by about 50 percent over the last 10 years; in the District of Columbia, the number has dropped from 91 to 40. From a pure business point of view, urban supermarkets are failing in the face of limited land space, high labor costs, shoplifting, vandalism and employee turnover.
But there are some promising efforts under way in some cities that might contribute to a solution for Anacostia. They involve joint retail ventures combining private-business expertise, government assistance and a strong community organization.
One of the most successful ventures is a cooperative project of The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) in Chicago and the local Hillman's supermarket chain. Since 1970, this partnership has operated a generally profitable food outlet in a low-income section of the city not unlike Anacostia. The secret to any success there has been the fortunate marriage of a strong and respected community organization with a locally based, family-owned food chain considered to be particularly sensitive to minority concerns.
Under the arrangement, The Woodlawn Organization's for-profit subsidiary owns 67 percent of the corporation running the supermarket. The organization raised its original $350,000 share of the project through a Small Business Administration loan. The Hillman's chain was then hired to manage and operate the store.
The arrangement has worked -- though a second Woodlawn-Hillman's venture didn't. That was a store 3 1/2 miles outside the Woodlawn area, and officials conclude, in retrospect, that one factor in its failure was that the Woodlawn group has no strong identity with what turned out to be a changing neighborhood. Also, there were other large supermarkets already doing business there.
But the original store is turning a profit. "It's had its up and downs," said Gardner H. Stern Jr., president of Hillman's Inc., "but I guess you'd say it's conceptually a success and it is still operating. Whatever problems we've had with pofits -- and they are better now -- are problems that are particular to supermarkets as a whole."
The Community Nutrition Institute, which keeps tabs on the retail food operations in cities, reports that other joint ventures are following patterns similar to the Woodlawn-Hillman's arrangement.
In Washington, Giant Foods -- which, unlike Safeway, is based here -- has entered into a joint-venture supermarket project in the Shaw urban-renewal area. There, a two-square-block shopping complelx is being developed by Adkins Enterprises, which has local ties. The Supermarket will be jointly leased by Giant, the District of Columbia Development Corporation, and the Shaw Community Citizens Pact, a nonprofit organization. The groups hope that the involvment of neighborhood people will help to minimize pilferage, vandalism and other problems; Giant also pledged to staff the store with as many neighborhood residents as possible.
There is a strong and stable nucleus of concerned neighborhood retailers in Anacostia, who, with the assistance of City Hall and the participation of a supermarket operator, are eager to work out a way to keep a store open at the Safeway site. Leaders of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., a federally funded nonprofit organization, are working to stimulate commercial development, and the Good Hope Merchants Association notes that the store is the anchor of the surrounding shopping area. "It won't be easy," says Charles E. ("doc") Qualls, who has been a druggist in Anacostia for 37 years, "but we're ready to raise whatever it takes to keep a supermarket operating here. What we've got to have is some expertise, not a bunch of novices."