Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ghetto grocery stores

A writer at TPMCafe raises an interesting question here. Why hasn't it proved economically feasible (and thus inevitable) that grocery store chains move into poor neighborhoods and exploit their desperation for better quality produce and lower-priced food. The real estate is cheap and the customer base is more or less assured. Some respondants opined that insurance and security costs would make it unprofitable, others pointed to "it ain't broke, don't fix it" business model of most retailers. The most interesting reply pointed to the rebranding of the same goods, groceries, to appeal to different class demographics, the way Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic does. As much as the Republican hacks whose campaigns they fund hate "class warfare," big corporations love to differentiate by class and exploit class differences for the different sources of profit they yield. It's interesting, though perhaps obvious to anyone who's shed their "America is a classless society and shopping is where we are all equal" blinkers, how different classes ahve different vulnerabilities and can be flattered in different ways. If I still lived in Arizona I could do some field research to explore the difference between shopping at Fry's and at Albertson's -- the stark difference in mood you experience in stores less than a mile apart selling basically the same thing. Part of it is the music, the lighting, and the odd specialty product, and general upkeep. But the chaos of the poor-neighborhood store has mostly to do with the chaotic lives of the customers, who make do without the niceties middle-class people take for granted -- ready transportation, adequate child-care arrangements, an income that requires no corner-cutting when it comes to food, etc.

Also Fry's, skewed toward lower-income immigrant workers, has a far more extensive ethnic food section, something that must disturb Albertson's middle-class clientele. The grocery store is apparently a place we go to discover that everyone else is really like us, traveling the same narrow band of experience as we are. Ethinc products would disturb us with a sense of the larger world outside when we are not prepared for it -- better to go to Cost Plus for that stuff, where the food travelogue is carefully designed to keep us feeling in control of information. I admit, I'm a bit overwhelmed by my current neighborhood grocery store, the Trade Fair on Ditmars Boulevard in Queens. Not only does it defy the laws of extension by cramming for more then should be possible in a tiny space, but it has a wealth of products from all over the globe, unprentiously stocked right alongide American made goods -- no ethnic shelf-space ghetto for the packages labeled in Cyrillic or the skinned goats hanging from hooks.

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