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Voices of independent store owners add context to EFSNE research

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Posted: February 13, 2015

There are more than a dozen food stores being studied by the EFSNE project team, an activity that would be impossible if not for the cooperation of the owners and managers who run those stores. Whether providing space for the Consumption Team to conduct intercept surveys or participating in interviews with the Distribution Team, these retailers are integral to the success of the project. And in November, several of them helped in an additional way, by traveling to Maryland to participate in a two-day workshop with EFSNE project researchers, graduate students, and community liaisons. Their participation proved to be beneficial both for the project team and for each other.

"The retailers' voice was one of the most important contributions to the meeting," said Kristen Park, a researcher at Cornell University’s Food Industry Management Program and member of the Distribution Team who attended the workshop. Park isn’t alone in her sentiment. In the post-workshop evaluation, the researchers and graduate students who attended ranked their interactions with store owners very favorably.

Retailer Panel Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think about the idea of producing more food in the region and getting it into stores in low-income areas?
  • What are most popular “healthy” foods that you sell? (Of course we are most interested in our project’s market basket items i.e. milk, bread, ground beef, canned peaches, apples, cabbage and frozen broccoli.)
  • What would you like to know about how low-income people purchase foods and shop in grocery stores/supermarkets?
  • How has this work or other current trends influenced you in managing your store?
  • What is the future vision and viability of your store?

Those interactions took on many forms, including casual conversations over meals, more formal sessions where store owners and community leaders gave feedback to the project team about its research, and a "grocery panel," during which all of the store owners took turns discussing their perspectives on several questions that the facilitators had compiled in advance. (See sidebar.)

It was evident from these discussions that, although each of the stores represented at the workshop is quite different, they face similar challenges as small, independent retailers operating in low-income communities. Accessing the distribution networks of suppliers is difficult, especially for rural stores; most wholesalers are reluctant to send delivery trucks to remote locations for relatively small sales. And while the idea of stocking more regional foods may appeal to store owners, they’re most limited by how the distributors operate.

"These retailers are part of the distribution system that in many cases cannot efficiently handle small quantities of food from segmented producers," said Park, whose research reinforces the store owners’ anecdotal evidence. "The distribution issues we heard about at the workshop have emerged as some of the most vital issues to the project."

Other challenges described by the retailers are tied to the challenges faced by their customers, many of whom receive SNAP benefits. For example, they reported that their strongest sales happen at the beginning of each month, when their customers’ monthly SNAP benefits are issued. Sales drop off sharply at the end of the month, yet the costs associated with keeping their businesses running stay the same all month long. As one store owner explained, "When sales fluctuate so significantly from first of month to the end of month, normally variable costs become fixed costs."

Of course, the constraints of the monthly SNAP-benefit cycle isn’t felt only by store owners, and members of the Consumption Team took the opportunity to ask the retailers about an issue that has been raised repeatedly during their focus group research: there is a commonly held belief among consumers that store owners raise prices at the beginning of the month as a way to take advantage of the SNAP-benefit cycle. The retailers responded that, for them, this simply isn’t the case. "At the beginning of the month, I put my best foot forward," said one store owner, indicating that he runs specials on high-value items like fish early in the month, and on lower-cost items at the end of the month in order to match his customers’ spending habits. "Our best discounts are always at the beginning of the month," echoed another.

Despite the challenges they described, it was very clear that these five store owners care deeply about their customers' health and well-being. One described his efforts to employ teenagers from the local community and to help them develop food-industry career skills. Another has hired a part-time dietitian to teach nutrition and meal-planning skills to customers. A third is expanding his small store so he can offer more fresh fruits and vegetables. "They are very connected to the communities that they serve," observed Tufts University’s Tim Griffin, one of the EFSNE team leaders who attended the workshop.

While the retailers’ insights were immensely valuable to the project team, they also appreciated the opportunity to learn from each other and from the project team at large during the two-day dialogue. Some reported that it was useful to get insights into challenges faced by other retailers in the region, and others appreciated learning about the distribution and production side of their industry.

The community-researcher workshop was funded by a separate NIFA conference grant. More information about the Consumption Team’s research on the retail sector is available here.

More reactions from the project team

 

"It was also a great opportunity (for me) to hear about the far end of the supply chain from where I usually work!"

Tim Griffin, Tufts University crop and soil scientist who co-leads the Production and Education Teams

“It seemed that store owners really appreciated sharing with each other about their experiences/challenges in trying to procure local food. I think there was a lot of good advice, encouragement, etc. shared among them. As researchers, it was encouraging to hear how positive store owner and community liaison experiences have been so far.”

Sarah Rocker, Penn State doctoral candidate in Rural Sociology and member of the Consumption Team

"I feel so privileged to both be a part of the EFSNE family and to have had the experience of interacting with community members and retailers thinking critically together in one space. Although my dissertation is occurring far from the Northeast region, there is so much about interactions among various nodes of the food system that are translatable from Northern Vermont to the middle of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. As I work with owners of small stores and consumers, I'll be thinking back to what I learned from that workshop, how to assess priorities of different interest groups and the utility of learning the language across the system.

Emily Piltch, Tufts University doctoral candidate/Friedman Fellow
in the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program and member of the Production Team