retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Washington Post has a story about Baldwin, Florida, a community of some 1,600 that last year lost its only grocery store.

And so the town government opened its own.

"At the Baldwin Market, which opened its doors on Sept. 20, all of the employees are on the municipal payroll, from the butcher to the cashiers," the Post writes. "Workers from the town’s maintenance department take breaks from cutting grass to help unload deliveries, and residents flag down the mayor when they want to request a specific type of milk."

The story says that so far, "the experiment has been a success. The town council had hoped to take in $3,500 a day, and sales have routinely exceeded that … About 1,600 people — roughly the equivalent of the town’s population — stopped in during opening weekend, according to the Florida Times-Union, and the market sold out of meat. Eight employees, all Baldwin residents, were hired at the outset, but the town recently brought on two more people to help out during the busy holiday season."

As it happens, "Baldwin isn’t alone. A similar experiment is underway in St. Paul, Kan., which has had a city-run grocery store since 2013. David Procter, who directs the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University, told The Post that another city-owned grocery store will open in Caney, Kan., in the spring, and at least one other town in the state is considering following suit.

"Many small-town grocers are reaching retirement age, and it’s tough for communities with dwindling populations to attract new residents when there’s no supermarket nearby."

The Post notes that there is an irony here - that "these experiments in communal ownership are taking place in deep-red parts of the country where the word 'socialism' is anathema."

The Post goes on: "In places where fresh, healthy food is hard to find, it’s more common to see nonprofit organizations respond by opening their own stores, or for residents to band together and form food cooperatives. Often, local governments will lend funding and critical support, and experts are divided on whether there’s an advantage to having the town itself own the store. There’s some dispute over whether residents will have more decision-making power in a co-op, and whether stores created by politicians risk facing closure or severe cutbacks when a new group of elected officials are voted in."

I'm reasonably sure that the majority of these governments would like to not be in the retailing business, but to me, this story simply points out the degree to which a good store offering relevant fresh foods can be important - even critical - to a community's health (in all the permutations of that word).

You'd think that some retailer could find a way to invent a format that could serve these communities effectively and efficiently. You'd think that Amazon or Walmart or Target could find a way to make their e-commerce offerings work for these places.

But maybe not. Which is why local governments have to make the Eye-Opening move into the retail business.
KC's View: