Columbia grocery store closings push fresh food farther out

Seven or eight grocery stores once lined St. Andrews Road between Broad River Road and Old Bush River Road, but now only three remain – bookending the stretch and leaving a cadre of neighborhoods farther from fresh food.

Across town, a popular Piggly Wiggly store on Garner’s Ferry Road has operated in the Atlas Road area for two decades but will close its doors at the end of the week, also leaving residents in that part of town with fewer options.

What gives?

Some say the smaller grocery stores have been pushed out by big box retailers gobbling up market share and stagnant populations in those areas. Both areas have Walmart stores that have opened in recent years and Target stores that have expanded grocery selections this year.

“In my mind – and I’m biased because I work in food access – the closure of a grocery store, or three, in a community, is generally not what I consider a good thing,” said Anna Hamilton, Lowcountry Housing Trust program and loan manager in North Charleston, which partners with the U.S. agriculture department on food access issues in South Carolina.

“If that Walmart is right there, it’s not that there’s no access, but the closure of one, or even in this case three grocery stores in a community, there’s gonna be some impact there.”

When Lower Richland resident Ruth Johnson learned of the Piggly Wiggly closing, she cornered store managers about the decision, then called the corporate office when the response she got wasn’t the one she wanted. A company spokesman told The State only that the store is closing because its lease expired.

“I really wanted Piggly Wiggly to be there,” said Johnson, who not only shopped in the store but also gave rides to people in her neighborhood who needed to go, sometimes finding herself in the store every day.

“I’ve shopped at Piggly Wiggly all my life, from the time I was growing up in Denmark and Barnwell County,” the 65-year-old grandmother said.

Now, Johnson and others who patronized the company will have to plot out routes to other Piggly Wigglys in the city – the closest being at least four miles away on Devine Street – or shift their patronage elsewhere. A Walmart superstore sits two blocks away from that closing Piggly Wiggly, but on the other side of a busy Garners Ferry Road intersection with Atlas Road.

“I don’t buy Walmart meat,” Johnson protested. “And it’s pretty hard getting in and out of that Walmart. I could find what I wanted at Piggly Wiggly.”

Spaces for lease

Fliers on the 32,000-square-foot former Food Lion store in Richardson Plaza advertise the property as having easy access to I-26 and I-20 and featuring excellent street visibility.

The store closed in May and sent some of its employees to work in other Food Lions.

A mile down the road across I-26, a Kroger store closed about a year ago, and a Piggly Wiggly shut down near the former Food Lion many years ago. Another Food Lion in a shopping center just past Old Bush River Road also closed down in recent years.

Around the area and along the three-mile stretch of St. Andrews Road from Broad River to Old Bush River roads, four to five traditionally stable neighborhoods – Grenadier, Seven Oaks, Whitehall, Challedon and portions of St. Andrews – harbor thousands of residents who shop for food.

Food Lion, which closed May 22, offered few details about its decision to close on St. Andrews Road, also saying in a statement only that its lease was expiring.

That store opened on April 15, 1981 and CBRE Columbia, which leases the property said it has no prospects in line to fill the space at present, grocers or otherwise.

Multiple efforts to reach Gator Investments of Florida, which has signs on the former Kroger property on St. Andrews Road, were unsuccessful.

The Piggly Wiggly across town on Garners Ferry Road moved into its 52,000-square-foot location in 2001, after operating since 1993 in a smaller building in a plaza across to the road.

“Our lease came to an end,” said Christopher Ibsen, an executive speaking for Piggly Wiggly. “(Closing a store) is one of the most difficult decisions (we make),” he added. But the health of the company is good, Ibsen said, noting the company plans to open a new store on the Isle of Palms in the summer of 2014, and will still operate nine stores in the Columbia/Lexington County area after Saturday’s closing.

The Garners Ferry Road Piggly Wiggly abuts a U.S. Department of Agriculture low income and low access community that is in jeopardy of easy access to fresh foods, according to the agency’s information.

The former St. Andrews Road Food Lion is within a 10-mile area where low access to fresh foods is a problem, according to USDA. Only a Bi-Lo at the Broad River Road intersection with St. Andrews Road, one at the Piney Grove Road intersection and an Aldi grocery store next door remain along the three-mile stretch.

Role of demographics

Several factors have to be considered when exploring the causes of the grocery store closings, according to Columbia expert demographics researcher David Beitz, including the area’s population growth – or the lack thereof – the age of the residents who live in the area, and income.

Taken together, those factors favor three Walmart superstores that strategically have infiltrated the area, and are capable of serving the Grenadier, Seven Oaks, Whitehall, Challedon and St. Andrews neighborhoods, albeit with less ease for those with transportation challenges.

In the trade area that extends roughly from I-20 north to Harbison bounded on the east by the Broad River, about 100 residents per year have been added to the population rolls for the past 12 years, according to Beitz’ statistics.

“That’s just stagnant,” said Beitz. “I would say that’s normal,” and not caused by a mass exodus of people from the area, he added.

Apartments are part of the makeup of the 15.3-square-mile grocery trade area of town, so a portion of the 35,647 residents who currently call that area home are young, Beitz said. The median age in the area is 33.4 years, while the U.S. median age is 37.3 years old.

“Young people eat out a lot,” Beitz said, which likely means they don’t spend as much at the grocery store.

According to Beitz’s research, the average person spends $40 to $50 per week on groceries and a typical grocery store such as a Food Lion or a Piggly Wiggly is doing well to take in $250,000 to $350,000 per week, he said. Most Walmart superstores do about $1 million per week, Beitz said.

“The population is there, it’s just that they’re either going to eat out as much (as eating at home) or they’re going to Walmart,” he said.

Beitz is not alone in his conclusions.

“You move across the road into a 20,000-square-foot larger building and in 10 years or so you’re closing? What happened?” asked Ben Johnson, a researcher at CBRE Columbia.

Walmart has the most market share of any grocery store nationally at 30 percent, according to some recent statistics and groceries sales now make up more than half the retailer’s business. Target also recently remodeled its local stores – including stores near both areas – beefing up its food sections to offer more variety and fresh produce.

Another cog in Walmart’s corner is that income in the St. Andrews Road area is below average.

The 2012 median household income for the area was $40,297, while the median income for all U.S. households for the period was $50,157, according to Beitz. If the median income for all U.S. households rises in five years to $56,895, as projected, the median household income for the St. Andrews Road corridor will be just $46,622, he said.

And folks with lower incomes often have transportation issues that make it harder to make a trip to the grocery store, whether that involves walking longer distances, paying to use a taxi or planning different bus routes.

“People need to know that there are a lot of people that don’t have easy access, where an apple a day isn’t even an option,” said Hamilton, of the Lowcountry Housing Trust.