It started innocently enough for me. I happened to be in West Los Angeles and wanted to make a quick food purchase. I stopped in at a Smart & Final in the area. On the first step inside I saw everything that I and countless others have long noted and long complained about. The store looked like a gourmet palace. It had wide aisles, was super well lit, had many cheerful attendants there to help, a speedy cashier checkout, and most importantly, a wide array of modestly price-quality foods and disposable items.
It was the classic prototype of a chic, classy, upscale, market in a high-income Westside neighborhood. The West L.A. S& F store stood in glaring contrast to the S&F stores that I have shopped at in South L.A. from the layout of the store to the quality of products, and pricing in these stores. The contrast drove home once more several bitter truths about race in America. The poor, especially the Black poor, pay more and get less for their dollar. The second bitter truth is that big, classy, upscale chain stores that operate in the West L.A.'s of America look and operate differently than the ones they place in the South L.A.s of America.
There is yet another bitter racial truth about these stores and their operations. They simply don't operate in poor, Black neighborhoods such as South L.A. The poorer quality of stores that are there, or their total absence, has its own nefarious term "supermarket reddling." It's a worst kept open secret that Whole Foods, Trader Joe, the Sprouts will not operate in South L.A.
There have been endless complaints and demands from residents including mid and high-income Black residents for the stores to open shop in these areas. The response from the corporate executives has been varied. The areas are not profitable. The quality of trained workers isn't there. The areas are high-crime areas. This would drive up operating costs due to the need for greater security and the greater potential of fire and property damage. These apologetics have been debunked and residents have called these lames excuses nothing but rationales for racism.
The figures certainly tell the sordid tale of supermarket reddling. According to a survey by CNN Business, nearly 20 percent of mostly Black neighborhoods had limited or no access to supermarkets of any type. That compared to less than 10 percent of white neighborhoods. The wholesale flight of some major chain markets from South L.A accelerated following the Watts Riots in 1965 and the 1992 riots. Some gradually came back but attempts to attract the newer upscale markets such as Whole Foods have gone nowhere. It was just simply much easier, and assumed more profitable and safer, to set up shop in West L.A. and the suburbs.
One organization, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, flatly contends that the major market chains have a standardized demographic location profile that specifies which communities are high-income and not African American. This ensures that a South L.A. will perennially come up on the short end when it comes to corporate decision making on where to locate a new market, and what kind of products will go in the new store. Supermarket corporate executives don't try to hide this. They will tell you that it's a matter of pure economics, profitability, and real estate costs that drive all decisions on where to locate a market.
They are adamant that the decision has nothing to do with race. This flies in the face of another reality. Supermarkets for years have operated stores in place such as South L.A. and then suddenly pulled up stakes and relocated to suburban areas. These stores were making money in South L.A. But the growing fears of safety fueled by a healthy dose of the standard racial stereotypes about alleged Black crime and violence also instilled fear in corporate supermarket decision-makers. The irony is that the claim that middle- and upper-class whites have higher incomes and spend more than Blacks doesn't hold water.
Countless studies have shown that Blacks spend a far greater percentage of their income than whites on food items and other consumer products. Blacks have often been called the ultimate consumer purchaser in America because of their propensity to spend. Yet, Black spending power has not offset the firm belief that a well-stocked market in the suburbs offers the potential for far greater profits than one in South L.A. The problem of lesser quality foods and items and the complete absence of upscale markets in South L.A. were made worse with the rash of mergers and buyouts in the 1980s. The result: fewer markets owned by a relative handful of conglomerate chains. The predictable quickly happened: the new mega-chains shut down a wave of stores. The first to go were those in inner-city communities.
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