May 25, 2012 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Three years ago Walter Dixie approached Mayor Matt Driscoll seeking support for developing a supermarket to serve Southside neighborhoods. The mayor told him he didn’t have any experience for such a development. Dixie assembled a team to study the effort, and last week led a busload of representatives from church congregations and neighborhood organizations on a fieldtrip to Vestal, outside Binghamton, for a tour of the newly opened Price Rite, a supermarket chain he hopes will set up shop in a building owned by his Jubilee Homes on the 600 block of South Avenue. The 48-store chain will be adding a location at the corner of Erie Boulevard East and Teall Avenue in October.
“We know we’re always cheaper than everybody else,” store president Neil Duffy told the delegation. That level of economy could be maintained, he noted, by doing very little advertising, having customers provide or buy bags and bag their own groceries, not operating a deli, and not taking checks or coupons. A typical Price Rite, he said, hires a minimum of 85 percent of its employees from the local community, most of them in 30-hour part-time slots, but with health benefits and 401K plans, 100 to 125 per store. The stores do not sell beer or cigarettes. Prices at Vestal Price Rite were so incredibly low that many of the Syracusans began shopping as the tour moved through the aisles.
State funding necessary
Duffy said the parent company, Wakefern Food Corporation, was currently conducting a market study on the feasibility of the South Avenue location, but reflected that Syracuse could be considered a two-, maybe three-store market. Dixie’s team has already completed a study, determining that there would be enough draw from the 13205 and 13207 zip codes to sustain the Southside market. Price Rite would lease the building—the company has done drawings for expansion of the site to 35,000 square feet—and invest some of the start up funds required, but a significant grant from the state regional council would be necessary to get the doors open. “If they gave Nojaim’s a million and a half,” Dixie repeated throughout the tour, “they should give us two million.”
With typical Salt City cynicism, some on the bus wondered if the prices could really hold, or were just an opening gambit. But Duffy had kept up a continued patter throughout the tour of the strategies to keep costs at rock bottom, even compared to chains like Aldi, Save A Lot or Walmart. “They have very few national brands,” he observed. “The big stores will offer 30,000 different products. We’ll stock 4,000 to 4,500, but only one national brand of each item, Heinz ketchup, for example, or Hunt’s the next month if we can get it cheaper.”
Who trains the teens?
Leaving the store after the tour, Duffy’s pitch continued at a luncheon provided by the company. “We hang our hat on produce,” he said. “Lots of ethnic merchandizing. Big on Goya. Big on Italian.” But the buzz at the tables, over an array of salads and sandwiches, focused more on the attitude of the Price Rite employees, especially the teens. “We train them to make shoppers feel good about themselves,” Duffy said. Training for that attitude, or the lack of it, would make or break chances for success on South Avenue. Duffy said the Price Rite folks try to connect with local training programs. Dixie expressed hope that there could be collaboration on the training.
Consideration of that need recalls a program back in the day developed by Will Dowdell, then assistant principal at Nottingham, now at J-D, in collaboration with an Erie Boulevard super store, which trained and created jobs for students, especially teens of color, to personify the same good vibes the Vestal Price Rite youth emanated. It would behoove Duffy and Dixie to consult Dowdell for perspective on his program, which, at the time, drew raves from everyone involved.
Three-time New York Press Association Writer of the Year, Walt Shepperd is a weekly columnist with The Eagle.