Monday, September 25, 2023
    HomeBusinessGiant in Ward 8 says it has no plans to close. But...

    Giant in Ward 8 says it has no plans to close. But the city still worries.

    Inside, the Giant on Alabama Avenue in Ward 8 was abuzz with shoppers loading up on produce, diapers and snacks for the weekend. But outside, the mood was a bit more anxious, as shoppers wandered over to Trayon White Sr.’s pop-up resource fair to hear the Ward 8 D.C. Council member deliver what sounded like a dire plea to save the store.

    “This is a message to our community that we stand in solidarity about keeping this grocery option open,” White said to a throng of news cameras.

    He had just had a meeting with Giant’s regional leadership, and had come away feeling a need to sound the alarm. The Giant on Alabama Avenue is the only major grocery store in the entire ward, serving more than 85,000 people, and White had the sense its future could be at risk. The management reported an uptick in shoplifting and crime at the Ward 8 location. The managers had, according to White, spent hundreds of thousands on security upgrades and yet, White said, were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per month because of theft. They didn’t say they were planning on closing the store. But still, White was worried, and now so were some of the residents who relied on it.

    “If we don’t have this one, there will be nowhere else,” said Traci Pratt, a 58-year-old Ward 8 resident who has been shopping at the Giant ever since it opened in 2007.

    The anxiety surrounding a single grocery store in Ward 8 underscores the limited access to quality food east of the Anacostia River, leaving officials like White to cling tightly to the community’s only available option when its future appears rocky. “This is more than just a food store — it’s a central part of our community hub,” White said.

    It’s not entirely clear just how rocky things are for Giant. The store declined to provide financial information to The Washington Post about the impact of shoplifting, but in a statement, made an assurance that it does not have any “current plans” to shut down.

    “However, we need to be able to run our stores safely and profitably,” read the statement, sent by spokesperson Felis Andrade. “The reality is that theft and violence at this store is significant, and getting worse, not better. As a result, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to operate under these conditions.”

    The Giant filled an enormous gap in Ward 8 when it opened its doors in 2007. The grand opening drew a visit from the mayor, gaggles of reporters, balloons, elated shoppers and even serenades from violinists. At the time, it had been about a decade since the ward had its own full-service grocery store, and so the thought of losing it again — to those who have watched this space evolve from a field of weeds to a crowded retail center — is enough to cause some hand-wringing.

    On Friday, the parking lot was full, the checkout lines were packed and, for safety, there was a mobile police camera hovering in the parking lot and a security guard standing by the door.

    Giant’s leadership began going public with broad concerns about theft and crime in news reports earlier this year. It wasn’t just about the Ward 8 location, and it wasn’t just Giant. Retailers across the country have been exiting large urban centers, citing problems with increased organized retail crime as well as lower foot traffic and inflation-related issues.

    Grocery stores run on slim profit margins, so higher costs for operations, labor and rent have put even more pressure on companies. Giant Food, which has 165 supermarkets across D.C., Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, has not closed any stores yet, and has made certain efforts to avoid doing so, company president Ira Kress told The Post in May. With theft and crime being one of the more prevalent issues, Giant limited the number of entrances at its stores to create more obstacles for shoplifters — a tactic that drew objections from the city’s fire inspector. Stores are also locking away more merchandise; skimming shelves of high-value, frequently stolen items; limiting self-checkout to 20 items; and installing wall dispensers that make noise when items are removed.

    As retailers leave some cities, one grocery chain is trying to stay

    “We have invested in a host of measures to mitigate the issue at this store, and across many stores, but we also need the help and partnership from the community and local officials to truly combat the theft and violence that continues to escalate,” the Giant spokesperson said in the statement Friday.

    White noted Giant’s regional management planned to sit down with the city’s economic development department in the mayor’s office possibly as soon as next week, something a spokesman for the department, Ben Fritsch, said is part of ongoing talks about how the city can assist with keeping the store safe and thriving.

    White stressed to any residents who may have been listening that they should turn to nonprofit partners that provide help with food security issues if they can’t afford groceries, rather than resort to theft.

    “We know it’s tough times and we know the price of food has skyrocketed in the last three years,” he said. “But we cannot afford to hurt ourselves by constantly taking from the store, because that means that everybody is going to be without a place to eat.”

    Jo Patterson of the East of the River Public Safety Consortium put it this way: “If people are hungry, they’re going to — I’m not going to use the word ‘take.’ I’m going to use the word ‘survive.’ They’re going to survive by any means necessary.”

    She questioned if the cost of theft could possibly be more than the money Giant has made serving the community.

    Tiffany Williams, CEO of Martha’s Table, a nonprofit that seeks to increase access to quality, healthy food, said that her organization has recently seen an uptick in demand for services with the combination of inflation increasing food prices and pandemic-era aid winding down. For example, she noted, benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for many families decreased in March.

    “The reality is we just need greater investment in Ward 8, greater investment across the board. Let’s start with more grocery stores,” Williams said, noting that of the District’s more than 50 grocery stores, just three are located east of the river in Wards 7 and 8, leaving many residents in “food deserts.”

    Watching her daughter play in a bouncy house at the resource fair, Rita May, 35, didn’t even want to think about how life would change if Giant wasn’t in her neighborhood.

    “I would die!” she exclaimed, envisioning lugging her bags of groceries and a baby stroller on public transportation to buy food elsewhere in the city. “I would be devastated, I really would.”

    She used to live across the street from the lot the Giant stands on in the 1990s, back when it was nothing, just a weedy lot home to an abandoned National Guard camp. “It was bad,” she remembered. But now she can walk here, every other day, to buy baby formula whenever she needs it. Was there shoplifting? Sure, but “that happens everywhere, not just here — even in Navy Yard.”

    That was also what irked Pratt, who hated to think that if the ward were to lose its only quality grocery store, wouldn’t things just get worse?

    “It would be a total injustice,” she said.

    Jaclyn Peiser contributed to this report.



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