I’m glad a reader brought up grocery prices in a response to my first post today, because I was going to bring it up myself. Not just prices but the entire shopping experience.

My theory is that supermarkets like Vons and Albertsons are basically obsolete. I know they probably sell a lot of groceries at supermarkets, but the promise of convenience upon which supermarkets were created is no longer being fulfilled by them. The stores are too big and the center aisles are largely filled by stuff I don’t need. If I forget something, I’ve got to go all the way to the other side of the store to get it. And, from my observation, the prices are generally higher for produce at Vons then they are at Henry’s. Meanwhile, cereal and cheese are much less expensive at Trader Joe’s than at either Henry’s or Vons. And eggs are way cheaper at Trader Joe’s than anywhere else in town. I can buy a dozen, cage-free eggs for less than $2.

We shopped at Vons when we first moved to San Diego in 2003 because we didn’t know about Henry’s and thought of Trader Joe’s as the place to buy chocolate covered raspberries. Then the grocery store workers went on strike, and we, not wishing to cross the picket line, switched to the Henry’s and Trader Joe’s in Pacific Beach where we lived at the time. We never went back because the shopping experience at these smaller markets is less stressful and the prices are better. We returned to Vons only for a small selection of national brand products. Now, three years later, that list has been shortened to just two items:

Tostitos Lime Chips and Vons’ wheat bread (because we like our bread fluffy.)

Advocates of Wal-Mart Supercenter often say that the store offers lower prices for poor people. I’m sure that’s true, but I’m not sure that people in San Diego realize how many options we have here compared to people who live in other regions.

San Antonio, Texas, for example — a city San Diego is often compared to and my hometown — is dominated by one family-owned grocery store chain called H.E.B.

It’s a great grocery store by and large, but it’s the only one in town. Many an Albertsons or Kroger has been opened in San Antonio only to be driven out by the competition of H.E.B. My parents love visiting me here in San Diego just so they can shop somewhere besides H.E.B. I’ve also lived in Virginia and Maryland — outside Washington, D.C. — and never had access to the variety of small family markets we have here.

Which is why I was startled by a recent U-T story about Tesco, the United Kingdom’s supermarket giant — coming to San Diego. Apparently, Tesco believes Americans really want small neighborhood markets.

They’re going to build one right in my neighborhood at 955 Catalina Road.

Reporter Jennifer Davies writes:

While the concept might seem, well, foreign, Tesco has grown into the world’s fifth-largest grocery retailer by anticipating what consumers want in such diverse countries as Poland, Turkey and China.

If a small, neighborhood market seems foreign to Jennifer Davies, I have to wonder where she’s been shopping. There are Henry’s and Trader Joe’s all over town, including one Trader Joe’s set to open in my neighborhood soon. In the Point Loma/Ocean Beach area we also have Stumps Family Market, Appletree and The People’s Organic Food Co-Op of Ocean Beach. Each of these stores offers convenient one-stop grocery shopping in the pleasant environment of a small store.

I haven’t even mentioned the number of Farmer’s Markets in San Diego offering fresh local produce at reasonable prices.

So if you’re going to argue that San Diego needs a Supercenter so that poor people can afford to buy food, then you have to prove that a Supercenter will beat the low prices already available. I’m not convinced they can.

San Diego may very well need or want a Supercenter, but let’s not pretend that we need one because there aren’t enough options in town.


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