by Kristen Cloud/staff writer
Late last year marked the first time since January 2009 that California’s statewide unemployment rate fell below double digits. But at a rate of 9.8 percent, the Golden State still has far to go before it bests, or simply runs relatively even, with the national rate of 7.9 percent.
The southern end of the state has even more work to do since, according to state and city leaders from SoCal who gathered in December for a Southern California Association of Governments economic summit, the unemployment rate in the six counties it represents—Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside and Imperial—is higher than the state’s jobless rate, says a report from the Ventura County Star.
About 660,500 jobs were added in California from 2000-2007. Since then, the state has lost 869,400 jobs. Approximately 66.1 percent of those lost jobs were in SoCal. Job growth, as well as fostering business expansion and promoting aggressive legislative action that supports local governments, is key to SoCal’s economic recovery, according to the association.
Jack H. Brown, chairman and CEO of San Bernardino-based Stater Bros. Markets, which operates 99 stores in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and the remainder of its 167 locations in Orange, L.A., San Diego and Kern counties, agrees.
“At Stater Bros., we’re concentrating on keeping our company strong,” Brown tells The Shelby Report. “We cannot affect what happens in Washington, D.C. We cannot affect the tax rate, which has gone up. So from those standpoints, we think the biggest contribution we can make to America is to take this little piece of the puzzle that we have here in Southern California and build it stronger.”
Job creation would be the single key factor in helping to improve the economy, Brown adds.
“We have to build jobs to build the economy,” he says. “We talk about all these other issues but jobs is where we really are hurting.”
Brown reveals that part of that job building will require leaders and politicians on both sides of the aisle, statewide and across America, to work together.
“I don’t think we have a political team at the top,” he says. “I don’t think either party is really working to help America. They are working more to help themselves look better to the public, but until we can throw aside our differences and work as one (then nothing will improve).”
He points to Stater Bros.’ “one mission, one team” theme as an example that lawmakers could follow to accomplish more.
“Whether you’re in our transportation department with our trucks, our frozen food warehouse or advertising or construction, we just have one mission. And we are one team, no matter what we do within that team,” Brown says. “So I think America has to make progress to become one team, much better than they have in the past.”
An ‘aggressive’ marketplace
It’s long been said that Southern California is the most competitive grocery market in the United States. From traditional and independent grocers, to specialty and premium food retailers, to club, big box, hard discount and drugstores, to the Latino and ethnic market, SoCal is saturated with folks wanting their share of the proverbial grocery pie.
In one word, according to Smart and Final Holdings Corp. President and CEO David G. Hirz, the SoCal competitive landscape is “aggressive.”
Smart and Final operates under three banners—Smart & Final (127 locations), Smart & Final Extra! (56) and Cash&Carry (serves foodservice business market)—all of which operate in California as well as other western states. Stores average between about 20,000 and 28,000 s.f.
“Smart & Final has a unique competitive profile in that we serve both businesses and households,” Hirz tells The Shelby Report. “There is no one like us in our market.
“The flip side of that is that we face many competitors who are actively pursuing one side of our customer base or the other. Costco, Sam’s Club and Restaurant Depot are all formidable competitors on the business side. On the household side, Walmart is expanding rapidly in California and is well on its way to add approximately 70 stores within 12 months.”
Stores like Dollar General also continue their expansion in California. Dollar General, for instance, entered the state last year by opening 50 stores.
“By the end of 2013, we will add another 50 stores, making our total California presence of 100 stores by the end of 2013,” Crystal Ghassemi, public relations manager for Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General Corp., tells The Shelby Report.
Reports also indicate that Family Dollar, which began opening in California in late 2011, as well as Dollar Tree, will continue opening stores on the West Coast at a steady pace.
Brown, of Stater Bros., recognizes the many who want their share of the food dollar. He considers each one a competitor.
“Every dollar they take in the Inland Empire, lets say where our principal marketing area is, is a dollar I should have had a part of,” he says.
Despite the competition from multiple segments, Brown notes that his company continues to gain customers—serving one million more guests over the year ending Sept. 30 than it did in 2011.
The privately held company that employs 18,000 also focused in 2012 on its “Doll House” remodels.
“These are stores that are 30,000 s.f. or less and we can’t enlarge them because of streets or leases or whatever it may be,” Brown says. “We go in and remodel the nicest store our customer can shop, featuring basically all of the entities that we have in our 46,000-square-footers, but with less facings.”
For example, he says, instead of six facings of tomatoes, a Doll House store might have three.
“And we do that throughout the store; it’s easy to see how much space we can pick up to add the items that we need to add.”
Stater Bros. has completed more than 20 of its Doll House remodels and plans to begin six more in the coming months.
“We call it all of your needs and some of your wants; everything you need as a grocery shopper and then some of your wants—we have some hand towels and water glasses and kitchen utensils,” Brown says, “but basically we’re a supermarket.”
Smart and Final also remodeled numerous stores in 2012, and plans to remodel more stores over the course of the coming year.
Hirz says the company has experienced strong same-store sales growth over the past year and added two new stores and significantly remodeled close to an additional 20 stores.
“We generally keep our growth plans pretty close to the vest, but we are planning to open more than five new stores and remodel more than 20 existing stores in 2013,” he says. “A number of those remodels will be conversions to our Extra! format.
“We believe there is substantial potential for continued expansion of our stores within our existing geographic footprint.”
Much of the Los Angeles-based company’s focus on its remodels has been expanding its fresh assortment.
“(That) has been a key component not only of the roll out of our Extra! format, but also in the remodel of our traditional warehouse stores,” Hirz says. “That has been a huge win for us, and we definitely will continue that going forward.”
Other stores are remodeling, too.
Superior Grocers, a privately held independent supermarket chain with 39 stores in SoCal, celebrated the re-grand opening of its newly renovated store at 7316 S. Compton Ave. in Los Angeles on Feb. 9. In conjunction, there was a special celebration to recognize the first community mural project completed in collaboration with councilwoman Jan Perry’s office, The Accelerated School and mural artist Andre Miripolsky.
“We have been part of this community for over 30 years and are excited to offer our customers a new and improved shopping experience with our newly renovated store,” says Mimi Song, president and CEO of Superior Grocers.
The celebration also recognized the community efforts put forth by The Accelerated School—Wallis Annenberg High School students, Perry’s office and mural artist Miripolsky. The “Fruits & Veggies” mural was developed by the team to help promote health and wellness efforts and to beautify the surrounding community.
“It was my great pleasure teaming up with the talented art students of Wallace Annenberg High School to create a public mural project with a positive and healthy message wrapped up in awesome wondercolor,” says Miripolsky.
The event also offered free health services and health information to its customers throughout the day Feb. 9.