For Reggie Shumway, a trip to the supermarket is a trip to the inconvenience store.
A carless cook living in northwest Tempe, near downtown and Arizona State University, Shumway must carry grocery bags while riding the bus, unless he can get a ride from a roommate. That’s reality when there isn’t a full-service supermarket within 2 1/2 miles.
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So when upscale Whole Foods announced two years ago it would open a store nearby, as part of the larger Mosaic condominium project, Shumway gorged on the good news.
“I was so excited,” Shumway, 29, said. “It wasn’t going to be just a grocery store; it was going to be healthy.” Plus, he works at the tavern Casey Moore’s, so the store would be just a short walk on Ash Avenue and across University Drive.
Unfortunately for Shumway and other residents waiting for a supermarket, the financial turmoil engulfing the Valley’s community of developers has waylaid the project.
Meanwhile, no one knows if another grocer will fill the vacuum. Some retail experts and civic leaders speculate supermarkets most likely think, for many reasons, serving that area is a poor business decision.
“The (profit) margins in the grocery business are tiny,” said Pam Goronkin, executive director of the Mill Avenue District. “In order to have things pencil out, you have to have density, a demographic that will be shopping from you and the cost of your real estate has to accommodate that.”
Not since 2000 has there been a supermarket in downtown Tempe, when ASU bought and closed the IGA Stabler at Mill and University.
The smaller, funkier Gentle Strength food cooperative lasted until 2006 before moving.
Said Shumway: “I’ll admit I didn’t shop there for everything every time — you kind of need a mainstream grocery store for certain things — but it was nice having it there.”
Gentle Strength’s former location is the site of the proposed Whole Foods.
In the neighborhoods west of Mill, and between Broadway Road and Rio Salado Parkway, city statistics state there are more than 3,900 households, although a population count isn’t available.
As could be expected, considering the proximity to campus, many residents in these households are students.
But “there’s a tendency to see them as not an attractive demographic to be targeting,” said Mark Barratt, a professor with ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
James Ward, Barratt’s colleague and a marketing specialist, added that grocers would rather sell to young families with children because their shopping tends to cover all parts of a store.
Not all supermarkets are dismissive of a market made up of undergraduates, though.
David J. Livingston, a supermarket researcher from Wisconsin, said Whole Foods succeeds in places where incomes and education levels are high.
However, Livingston phrased this thought in a way that might give pause to ASU officials: “They typically like to go next to major universities with expensive tuition.”
The downtown area’s demographics were supposed to be buttressed by condo complexes, such as Mosaic, opening their doors. As Ward pointed out, residents drawn to urban living tend to be older, richer singles — perfect for a Whole Foods.
Yet the myriad of economic difficulties, from the credit crunch affecting potential homebuyers to developers unable to find financing, has stopped some downtown condo projects cold while delaying others.
Another problem grocers might have with a downtown Tempe location, the experts said, is they would be looking for a location in downtown Tempe. Land costs more there and Barratt added a cramped downtown can create access difficulties for customers and suppliers.
If there is a solution, it might come from adjusting the scale of expectations.
Goronkin noted that in true urban environments, sprawling supermarkets are nowhere to be found; instead, there is a multitude of smaller markets.
The experts more than once mentioned the Fresh & Easy chain, with its smaller stores (about 10,000 square feet), as a good fit for downtown and the student population.
For comparison, the Whole Foods calls for about 55,000 square feet, on two stories.
But Tesco, parent company of Fresh & Easy, hasn’t announced plans to come closer to downtown than a store at Baseline and Kyrene roads, three miles south.
In the meantime, Shumway is waiting for construction to start on Mosaic/Whole Foods, or for another grocer to determine there’s money to be made serving his neighborhood.
And he may still be waiting for a ride to the store.
“I could get a bike with a big basket ...”