In which SA contemplates giving its lunch money to the playground bully
Last year, shortly after the disclosure of intense talks with H-E-B over the construction of a downtown supermarket, City Hall announced $1 million in taxpayer monies to attract an unspecified banner-name operator. It went unsaid but residents knew exactly which storefront planners envisioned: the chain Mayor Julián Castro has referred to as San Antonio’s “official store.” So the release this week of an RFI for companies tantalized by the incentive feels like a dog-and-pony show designed to deflect the criticism of citizens who might oppose a handout to one of San Antonio’s richest corporations.
In no other metropolitan area in the United States do shoppers patronize a supermarket chain that wields such dizzying market dominance. Outside of South Texas, any metropolis you care to name is plied by myriad local, regional and national supermarket chains. Kroger, Albertsons, Publix, Vons, Ralphs, Safeway, Food Lion, and other major banners constantly compete for customers. A national survey by Consumer Reports published last May revealed that, “[o]ne-third of subscribers surveyed said they had given the heave-ho to a nearby grocery store.”
Good luck with that here. With rare exception, H-E-B – which declined requests for an interview for this story – provides virtually the only traditional supermarket service, even though groceries remain big business in the U.S. According to a research report on retail by Wells Fargo Securities last August, “The vast majority of people (more than 80 percent of those we surveyed) indicate that they still shop at a traditional grocery store (i.e., Safeway, Kroger, Albertson’s, etc.) as one of their primary grocery destinations.” Locally, the competition H-E-B faces comes not from supermarket powerhouses such as those, but indirectly from niche or natural chains like La Fiesta or Whole Foods, hypermarket formats operated by Walmart and Target, and military commissaries.