Sunday, October 16, 2011

Incongruous food marketing in the Mission

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One of the minor mysteries of the current time is that my local Walgreens drug store (a huge branch of a national chain) has remodeled its entrance so that it now proclaims itself a place to buy groceries. The sign above dominates the front (only) entrance.

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Inside bright refrigerated counters display prepared convenience meals that look reasonably edible for the genre -- perhaps of the same quality as in an airport. Prices are similar to an airport's as well.

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Walgreens accepts food stamps.

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There's a good sized aisle of ordinary canned and packaged foods, also priced at the high end for such goods.

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At check out, there are a few sad looking durable fruits ...

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With these signs scattered about, it is hard not to think that Walgreens wants to be your grocery store.

The corporation explains its move into the food business like this:

Walgreens is targeting markets where access to produce and other goods can be hard-to-find. Across the chain, it’s already selling a wider variety of food and household goods in an effort to reach shoppers looking for convenience.

The company’s goal: to be a one-stop shop for healthy living.

Nice echo of Michele Obama's crusade for wider availability of healthy food in poor neighborhoods there.

Now I'm far from a food snob. My political stance about food has always been simple: everyone should have some.

I can even imagine buying and eating some of the Walgreens stuff in a pinch -- in fact, during the last three weeks when we've been without a kitchen or even a coherent living space because of remodeling, we've picked up a few items there.

But I remain bemused. The Mission is not a food desert. Across street from this Walgreens is one of our numerous small produce markets that stock genuinely fresh fruits and veggies. Just around the corner there's a thriving weekly farmers market. We've already got more cheap convenience than most people. On the street and in storefronts, it is easy to buy hot dogs, tacos, and pupusas for well under $5 for a meal. True, the nearest conventional U.S. super market is many blocks away, but food is plentiful and much of it is cheap.

I have to wonder whether there is really a niche in this neighborhood for Walgreens to fill. Hard pressed working immigrants who actually cook almost certainly have figured out how to buy bulk staples occasionally at somewhere like Costco or Food for Less (no more than 10 blocks away).

Walgreens must intend to use its huge size to undercut the local merchants. Those milk and bread prices do trump the neighborhood stores; corporate volume buying can do that. But in this 'hood, the chain drug store doesn't really offer a convenience advantage. Time will tell whether this food marketing experiment works.

This post is a contribution to international Blog Action Day, a worldwide conversation about food. As I said above: everyone should have some!

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