Joetopia

Atascadero's in a race to the bottom

jtarica@thetribunenews.comMarch 1, 2014 

Atascadero should take a good, long look at what happened to Neil Benson and his Grocery Discount Center.

The Vons center store, which has been in business in Atascadero since 1998, will close at the end of March, apparently a victim of larger discount chains.

Within the past couple of years, the Grocery Outlet opened at the Mission Oaks shopping center at Del Rio, and then along came the 99¢ Only Store, whose repeated interest in locating at the Vons center eventually led the landlord to ask Benson to move over a space to make room.

For Benson, it has to be utterly galling to accommodate a competitor you hope will bring more traffic to your store, only to watch it eat your lunch. He acknowledges he misjudged that dynamic, but he seems to be taking it in stride, which is a testament to his level-headedness, I guess.

“What’s happening to me is happening everywhere,” Benson said in a story last week. “Big corporations are coming in and knocking out mom-and-pop stores. Really, the strong survive, and the weak don’t.”

Market purists would say this is how it should be. But it’s a shame that most businesses without an “Inc.” at the end are now in a state of jeopardy from the start.

This wasn’t the case when Benson opened for business in 1998, and now Atascadero loses a 16-year local business while the proportion of dollars going to out-of-town discounters only increases. It also may be a foreshadow of things to come on a larger scale, should Wal-Mart ever clear all its legal hurdles and actually set up shop on the city’s north side.

If a store that sells knick-knacks and knockoffs for under a buck can put a longtime local shop out of business, what will the granddaddy of all discounters do to the diversity of retailing in town?

I know, nobody cares. Apparently, most everyone just wants the cheapest prices possible — quality and the community’s overall economic health be damned. And the city seems to simply want as much sales taxes as possible, even if they all end up coming from one place.

None of this adds up to a robust, balanced business environment with room for different tiers of sophistication and size. The fact that Wal-Mart can ring the cash registers a little more loudly and sell you a DVD for 29 cents less than the other guy won’t make Atascadero a better place.

The homogenization of the retail scene is not a good thing. If none of that is enough to persuade you, how about this: While struggling to survive last summer, Benson told me, he was approached by a high-end health food chain about possibly buying his location. The owners flew down to Paso Robles in a private plane, met Benson and visited his store.

Two weeks later, however, they contacted him and said they were going to pass. He asked why. Because Atascadero doesn’t fit their image.

If you want a better example of the problem the city’s retail environment faces than that, I’d love to hear it.

Though this should not be a surprise as we’ve heard it before. See Trader Joe’s.

I don’t know whether the city can do anything about this, but it must find a way to diversify with middle- and higher-end offerings. Catering to the lowest common denominator will only accelerate the race to the bottom. 

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica. Stay updated by adding Joe Tarica on Google+.

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