November 29, 2021

A bargain of convenience?

Dollar Generals offer easy shopping but can lack healthy necessities

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Flo Elliott leaves the Dollar General on Homer Avenue in Cortland on Wednesday. Dollar Generals in and near the county can provide quick access to some foods, but they can deter full groceries from entering a market.

Flo Elliott of Cortland made a stop Wednesday to the Dollar General on Homer Avenue in Cortland. She bought some vitamins, electrolytes and laundry detergent.

“I don’t like Walmart at all because it’s just too much,” she said. “I can get all I want right here and they’ve got good prices.”

For people like Elliott, Dollar General provides a convenient stop to get some small grocery items. It’s close.

As of January, there are six Dollar Generals within 15 miles of Cortland, according to the store’s location tracker. Another has been proposed on Route 281 in Homer.

The locations Dollar General chooses tend to be more rural, according to a report for the Institute of Self Reliance. Moreso, there are now more discount stores like Dollar General across the country than Walmarts and Whole Foods stores combined.

This growth, though, can spell danger for local grocery stores, and their communities.

“This has become the No. 1 challenge of grocery stores,” David Procter, an expert on community development and director of the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University, said in the report by the ISR.

Additionally, the report states that data from local grocers in numerous communities suggest that it’s typical for sales to drop by about 30% after a Dollar General opens.

While some local officials have supported the chain’s multiple locations as a benefit to providing access to grocery foods at low costs, others have been critical in the disparity between which stores offer fresh fruit and vegetables and which ones don’t.

CONVENIENCE AND ASSISTANCE

New York state has about 520 Dollar General stores, said Crystal Ghassemi, a Dollar General spokeswoman. The company looks for convenient locations and what other options potential customers may have — the competition.

Some offer fresh produce, but not all. Dollar Generals in Moravia and the one on North Street in Dryden have fresh produce, but not in the other stores, including Groton, which is otherwise a food desert.

Ghassemi said the company began the Better-For-You initiative 2 1/2 years ago to provide healthier options like reduced-sodium soups and lower-sugar cookies.

Still the stores are not, and are not meant to be, full grocery stores, Ghassemi said.

An average purchase is around $12 and consists of a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and eggs, meant to supplement trips to larger groceries.

“We look at the ability to help customers save on the things they need to help supplement and pay for the things they want,” Ghassemi said. “If our stores help supplement the food needs, then we’re proud to be in that community that others can’t or won’t serve that community.”

‘IT’S BOUND TO IMPACT OTHER BUSINESSES’

The challenge is that the stores can present significant competition to full groceries — leading to a 30% loss in sales, the Institute for Local Self Reliance reports. That’s enough to deter a store from opening, or to force an existing grocer to close, even though it may take years.

“The problem is that if the grocery store closes, this impacts the town in a big way,” Procter said in the report. “Our research shows grocers are barometers for other businesses in town: as goes the grocery store, so goes other independent businesses in that community.”

Mike Clark has mixed feelings about the Dollar General that opened a half-mile from his store, Clark’s ShurFine Food Mart in Dryden, which has been around more than 60 years.

“Anytime any business comes into any community, it’s bound to impact other businesses,” Clark said. Another Dollar General opened recently in Freeville, a couple miles away.

On the one hand, the company could build stores wherever it wants in a free-market economy. On the other, Clark thought that the store’s inexpensive products could undercut and hurt other local businesses.

“It’s bound to happen,” he said.

That said, Clark hasn’t seen a large loss of sales from the Dollar Generals.

“We’re competitive in town as it is,” he said. “We’ve been here for years.”

PROVIDING ACCESS WHERE NEEDED

Each of the Dollar Generals in and near Dryden have provided access to food that, while not as fresh as what can be found in a grocery store, still gives people options, said Dan Lamb, Dryden’s deputy town supervisor.

The store on North Street, which Lamb said has been open for several years, has provided a nearby place for students at Tompkins Cortland Community College to get some grocery items. The store on Route 13 near Freeville, which opened in 2020, has also provided access to food for people on the western side of town.

The only concerns he got from town residents when it was in its development was whether it preserved the town’s rural character.

Lamb noted though that that location — next to a Mirabito gas station and across from a New York State Electric & Gas Corp. building — was already commercial.

“I had a hard time seeing this as out of character there in this portion of our town,” he said.

The Dollar Generals within the town, while not providing the same access to healthy, fresh produce or meats, gives people a place to get groceries, even if the food is almost all processed, Lamb said.

Other than Clark’s, getting fresh food means driving to Cortlandville or Lansing.

“We don’t have the same grocery store resources competing with the Dollar Generals,” Lamb said.

Lamb speculated that grocery stores and other bigger food markets would build a store in the town if they thought it could survive. He was surprised none looked to build near the location of the Route 13 Dollar General; that site could sustain a large part of the town’s western population and gets a lot of traffic to and from Ithaca.

“If it was going to happen, it would have happened by now,” he said.

‘IT’S BEEN A DISAPPOINTMENT’

The village of Groton also saw a new Dollar General built in 2020 on Main Street, but it hasn’t fulfilled the village’s need for a true grocery store, village Trustee Betty Conger said.

Dollar Generals offer a variation of stores, including those that have fresh fruit in vegetables. The store in Moravia, which was recently remodeled, has that.

The one in Groton doesn’t.

“We had hoped it would be one of their market-style stores with fresh produce but it hasn’t happened,” Conger said.

The store offers canned and frozen fruit and vegetables, but that’s it in terms of produce.

Conger said she was happy a business has moved into the current location, which has housed other businesses over the years like 7-Eleven, but said “it’s been a disappointment” as it hasn’t been able to help the village’s food desert issues.

Moreso, Conger said Dollar General not having fresh produce is disappointing as the only other store in the village that sells groceries of any kind is a Family Dollar, which also lacks fresh food.

That’s not to say grocery stores haven’t tried to come to the village.

About 25 years ago, Clark’s Food Mart was looking to put in a store in the village, Conger said. The attempt failed as the defunct Wilson Farms convenience store outbid Clark’s ShurFine Food Mart, before being bought by 7-Eleven.

Local organizations have worked to provide fresh produce and other fresh food. Each Tuesday, the Groton Public Library gives away food to roughly 75 to 80 people, Conger said. The village’s food pantry also provides food giveaways weekly with help from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier.

Otherwise, like Dryden, the only other places for people to get fresh food are Ithaca, Cortland or Moravia, which isn’t always easy for people with limited or no transportation.

Conger said she would like a grocery store in the village, but it would require community support.

“If they don’t shop there when it comes, it’s not going to last,” she said.