Boston's Poor Pay More For Food
Theft and Other Problems Increase Business Costs, Prices
August 2--Standing outside a small supermarket near his home in Roxbury, black resident Mohamed Hosein, of Intervale Street, told Massachusetts News, "There needs to be a better supermarket in this community."
Hosein says he shops at grocers in the black community only because they are close, but when he has time he prefers to shop at Star Market near Fenway Park or Cambridge's Porter Square. "In Cambridge and the Fenway, the prices are lower and the store is cleaner."
Inner-city grocery stores in poor areas often display spoiled meat and vegetables, broken refrigerators, empty shelves, dirty floors, and emit an odor from the fish section.
Lillian Tyler of Kensington Park, Roxbury, who is black and only shops in Roxbury because it is within walking distance, says the overall quality in Roxbury markets is poor. "I prefer to shop at Stop & Shop in the South Bay shopping center or Star Market in the Prudential Center because the employees will wait on you better, where they are not talking to each other."
Except for the very edges of the black community, not a single large-chain supermarket operates in Roxbury, Mattapan, or North Dorchester. In recent years, when large chains have opened stores in very poor neighborhoods, the high amount of theft has caused the stores to lose money and be forced to close, such as the Star Market on Morton Street which lost millions and the Stop & Shop on Columbia Road.
Michael Hunter, a real estate manager for Supervalue supermarkets, which is involved with local grocers under various names, says the average household income surrounding a grocery store is the determining factor for the profitability of a market.
Hunter says a large chain could not operate in the Grove Hall area of Roxbury because the $15,000 average household income of the neighborhood would result in difficulties, such as security and employee-labor skills.
Missing Fathers Hurt the Children
Donald Marion, a former University of Massachusetts professor and food marketing economist told Massachusetts News the primary reason the black community does not have high-quality, low-priced supermarkets similar to those in the white suburbs has to do with issues of labor. "Since the cultural history of work and career employment in poor black neighborhoods is less common, some, but not all, of the workers do not know what is expected of them when they take a job." Absenteeism is more common, and there can be problems with punctuality and dependability.
Frank Miller, who managed the Morton Street Star Market in Mattapan in the 1970s, told Massachusetts News a high-turnover rate was a problem, and could be attributed to a lack of role models in the home with work experience.
One of his best workers called in sick for work, instead of telling his boss he was going to be late, when he was forced to take a bus after his car broke down. Miller had to explain to him that it was better for him to come in late, than not at all.
Marion says a high employee-turnover rate adds additional training costs, cutting the store's profits.
Supermarkets in the black community must obtain most of their employees from the immediate neighborhood because a majority of their customers would want and expect that, he says.
Theft is Damaging
Since supermarkets typically operate with Lilliputian profit margins of between one and two percent, even in affluent communities, employee pilferage and stealing in poor black neighborhoods causes many grocers to go out of business, he says.
Shrinkage, which is the amount of product that is lost due to stealing or damage, is typically between one-half and three-fourths of one percent in suburban areas, says Marion. The inner-city shrinkage rate is between one and one-half and two percent, sometimes reaching four percent.
An Ames department store in Boston's black community that closed a few years ago reported a shrinkage rate of 10 percent.
Miller and Archie Williams, the erstwhile owners of now defunct Freedom Foods located in Roxbury and Dorchester, both said stealing was one factor that contributed to the downfall of their respective stores.
Two high-level large-chain supermarket executives who refused to be identified, and who have been intimately involved in stores in poor black areas, both said stealing is the most important reason supermarkets lose money in poor black areas.
Williams said he had to sell $3,000 worth of food to cover the cost of each shopping cart stolen.
Grocery stores in black communities engage security guards to hamper
Adding to the extra labor costs of inner-city stores, Marion says, is that the stores tend to become more disheveled, with items scattered indiscriminately throughout, which must be re-shelved. This occurs because shoppers have less money, so when they reach the cash register, they discover they cannot afford some items. Since the stores also tend to have more children in them, the kids add to the scattering of items.
Marion says large chains with suburban stores are unable to increase their prices in inner-city stores to offset its higher expenses because neighborhood residents, most of whom are poor, would strongly object. "There would be pressure against charging more. There is something not quite right charging people with the least ability to pay more money."
As a result, Marion says, small independent grocers, who specifically do not have stores in the suburbs that charge less, are able to charge more because they do not have any other stores to compare their prices to. The only grocers in Boston's black neighborhoods are relatively small independent ones that tend to charge more.
Despite the city of Boston putting in $6.8 million to help develop the soon to open Grove Hall shopping area, only a small independent grocer is willing to open a store there.
Independent Stores Know Their Customers
Another advantage independents have in inner-city locations is their ability to better serve the specific needs of the neighborhood, says Marion. Independents come from the neighborhood, know the area better, and work hard to develop a relationship with the residents.
Mark Sutherland, of Harrishof Street, Roxbury, says he prefers to shop in West Roxbury because of the higher quality and lower prices, but when he occasionally seeks to purchase Jamaican foods from his parents' homeland, he can only find those products in his own neighborhood.
Markets in black areas sell products hardly ever seen in white suburban stores, such as neck bones, salt pork, several kinds of smoked meat, ham hocks, and king fish because inner-city residents are often descendents of Caribbean, African, Latin American, or Asian countries.
Miller says Star Market food buyers sometimes did not have a good understanding of particular foods eaten in black areas, so they had difficulty purchasing the items in an efficient manner. Since Star bought food for a chain of about 60 stores, it was not a priority for them to make sure one store in the inner-city had its supply of Caribbean foods.
Since chain supermarkets often prefer stores with about 55,000 square feet, and available city land is sometimes scarce, it is often easier to open a store in the suburbs, which adds to the scarcity of markets in the inner-city, says Marion. The costs of occupancy can be higher, along with extra red tape, although these problems are sometimes less severe in ghetto areas.
Driving along Blue Hill Avenue, the commercial heart of Boston's black community, one is easily struck by the paucity of retail stores. Up until the 1960s, when the area was predominantly Jewish, it had a vibrant economy. But since then Blue Hill Avenue's economic activity has plummeted to the point where there are few supermarkets, department stores, restaurants, music stores, taverns or even poorly-paid taxi drivers willing to stop for an extra customer. Getting a flat tire fixed is easy, but finding a mechanic to repair a carburetor is another story, as mechanics are almost nonexistent.
The unfortunate result is that Boston's poorest citizens must pay higher
prices for lower-quality food to the few local grocers, or travel great
distances outside their community, often without access to a car, to find a
decent supermarket. It also means that local employment, retail jobs that
are often a stepping stone to more meaningful careers, are few and far
between, which contributes to high unemployment in the black community.