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COLUMN ONE : Shoppers in Need of Stores : South Los Angeles has been tagged by businesses as a place to avoid. Customers are forced to pay higher prices and travel far to find goods that most find readily available.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Target Stores, after blanketing Southern California over the last eight years with 73 discount outlets, has become one of the biggest retailers in the region. But you will not find the familiar Target sign with the red bull’s-eye anywhere in South-Central Los Angeles or in other parts of South Los Angeles.

Vons Cos. is the biggest supermarket operator in the Southland with more than 300 stores. But in South Los Angeles, Vons has been closing supermarkets over the years and is down to two stores.

Twenty-six years after the fiery Watts riots called attention to the economic and social shortchanging of the black community, residents of South Los Angeles--now more than 1 million strong--remain abandoned consumers. They pay high prices, sometimes for shoddy merchandise, and they routinely travel long distances to find basic goods and services that most Southland consumers find readily available in their neighborhoods.

In many ways their predicament now is worse than it was in 1965. While the population of South Los Angeles has grown--and as its pockets of affluence thrive--most major retailers and other businesses keep fleeing or avoiding the largely depressed area.

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As a result, there are far too few banks, supermarkets, drugstores and discount stores. Family restaurants are so scarce that when a ceremonial groundbreaking was held this month for a Denny’s in Willowbrook, it rated as a news event.

Today, the area known as South Los Angeles--still the heart of the local African-American community but also home to a growing Latino population--is a diverse swatch of neighborhoods. It includes the poverty of Watts but also the prosperity of Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights. But residents and community activists say the community has been painted with a broad brush by big retailers and other marketers as an almost universally destitute, crime-ridden area that is best to avoid. Despite the development of half a dozen pioneering shopping centers over the last 12 years, and the success stories of some major retailers in the area, most of the big chains and other businesses continue to steer away.

“There are no movie houses, no roller-skating rinks,” Dr. Ernest H. Smith, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, said with only the slightest exaggeration. “It’s been that way since the riots, and almost nothing’s been replaced,” added Smith, who works with South Los Angeles community groups. “If you don’t have these things, can you really call it a community? All you have are liquor stores, schools, funeral parlors and churches.”

Many in the community believe that the dependence on liquor stores and other small shops has contributed to ethnic tensions because such businesses--many owned by Korean-Americans--cannot match big-store prices or provide many jobs for residents.

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Retail flight from South Los Angeles “gives you only one place to shop,” said Juanita Tate, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles. “People like choice, and when there isn’t any choice, there’s tension.”

For Ruth Champ, just getting to and from the supermarket closest to her apartment on East 87th Place can be an ordeal. Champ, 69, a retired hospital worker, does not own a car.

If she needs groceries and her son is not available to drive, she walks 15 minutes to the bus stop at Manchester Avenue and Main Street. If she is lucky, she gets picked up quickly. But sometimes, Champ said, overcrowded buses keep passing her stop and she must wait more than an hour for a ride. And, after all that, Champ often cannot find an open seat and has to stand.

Knowing that she may face the same difficulties on the way home, Champ shops carefully at her local supermarket, an ABC store. “I can’t carry big five-pound bags of flour or sugar. I have to get two- or three-pound bags, and they don’t last long,” she said.

“The walk is bad enough to the bus stop,” added Champ, who had hip-replacement surgery several years ago. “That’s why I don’t get many things. And I go only when I really have to go” to the store.

“I don’t feel too good about it,” Champ said. “I think we should have other stores here. Lots of times, you could shop around. Sometimes different stores have different things. Maybe Ralphs has sugar for $1.29, and ABC has it at a different price. If it (another store) was close by, you could get there.”

Probably the most visible retail chains still doing business in South Los Angeles are Boys supermarkets and its sister stores, Viva and ABC. Frequently criticized for charging customers allegedly excessive prices, these chains also are praised for serving South Los Angeles extensively.

Other mass merchants ranging from Payless ShoeSource to K mart also serve the community, along with such fast-food chains as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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But most supermarket chains and other big retailers, contending that South Los Angeles lacks business potential, have failed to look for imaginative ways to serve the area.

South Los Angeles’ economy was devastated in the late 1970s and early 1980s as major industrial employers such as General Motors, Goodyear, Firestone and Bethlehem Steel shut aging factories, which were hurt by changing technology and foreign competition. Bankers and insurers, critics say, dealt the area another crushing blow by redlining the area and investing elsewhere.

Some retail executives say they would like to do business in the area but they worry that a high crime rate will drive away customers. The Police Department’s 77th Division, which serves much of South-Central Los Angeles, is one of the smallest of the department’s 18 divisions but last year had the highest number of homicides, 131.

“We could operate a store there, but the question is, would customers come?” said George Hite, Target’s chief spokesman.

Diane lives in Watts with her 73-year-old mother and 7-year-old son, but she makes it a point to shop outside the community. “When I shop, I like to shop in comfort,” she said.

She does not feel safe shopping at nearby stores because of the frequent crime, she said. In fact, she asked that her last name not be used because of concern about being harassed by people in her neighborhood.

She is put off by the offensive way many customers behave too. “They’re drinking and using profanity, and it’s not the best environment,” said Diane, 37.

Diane, who is a business office manager for the county’s health services department, also objects to what she terms the rude, abrupt manner of Asian-American entrepreneurs, mainly Koreans, who run most of her neighborhood’s shops. When she spends money at these shops, she said, “it’s like they’re doing you a favor.”

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At the local Boys store, she said, she notices that the bags of potato chips and fruit snacks she likes to pack in her son’s school lunch tend to cost 10 to 20 cents more than they do at other supermarkets.

Diane typically drives about 30 minutes to Lakewood or adjacent areas to buy groceries at an Albertson’s, Lucky or Vons supermarket. When she shops for clothes, she likes to go to a Nordstrom store outside the area.

“You get treated a little bit different,” she said. “You get respect.”

Economic deprivation is a sad fact of life in South Los Angeles. Although no unemployment figures are kept for the area, the September jobless rate in Compton was 18.4%, versus a countywide rate of 9.3%.

In the area examined by The Times--bounded by the Santa Monica Freeway to the north and extending to include all of Inglewood on the west and Compton on the east--the median family income in 1990 was an estimated $20,820, according to the marketing data firm Urban Decision Systems. That was 32% less than the $30,525 median for Los Angeles County.

But even taking that into account, the community’s poor and affluent consumers alike are strikingly under-served. There are less than half as many stores per person in South Los Angeles as there are countywide, according to the most recent statistics from the data firm Claritas Corp.

Those figures show 2,411 stores in the area included in the study, or one store for every 415 residents. Throughout the county, the statistics show, there is one for every 203 residents.

The plight of consumers in South Los Angeles is probably even worse than the numbers suggest because so many of their neighborhood stores are small shops rather than king-size chain operations. At the same time, there has been some good news, with the apparent pickup in recent years of Latino-owned shops.

For Maria Elena Ortega, who lives near 50th Street and Avalon Boulevard in South-Central, the arrival of some new Latino-owned stores in the neighborhood has been a boon. She used to drive 15 minutes just to go to the dry cleaners. But now she goes to a shop two blocks from her home opened this year by a Mexican-American.

Still, Ortega, 31, a single parent rearing a 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, decries the shortage of movie theaters and other recreation-related businesses in the neighborhood--a problem that she believes contributes to gang activity.

“Usually, I have to drive to Eagle Rock for a movie with the kids, or to Century City, someplace where I feel they can be safe,” Ortega said.

“I can afford to keep a car and drive where I want,” she added. “For my neighbors, though, I can see them struggle because they have to catch a bus or put up with what they have in the area. My mother, for example, just doesn’t go out.”

Although a few supermarket executives have recently shown interest in South Los Angeles, economic trends offer little immediate hope for major retail developments in the area. Banks, which even in good times balk at taking chances on inner-city projects, now are cutting back on all types of lending. The federal assistance that once gave such projects badly needed help has dried up.

Some analysts theorize that merchants will start looking to the inner cities now that the suburbs are badly oversaturated with stores, but the retailing industry’s long-term slump is likely to make many executives hesitant.

City and county officials have been instrumental in bringing half a dozen shopping centers to South Los Angeles since 1979. The city provided financing for the Vermont-Slauson Shopping Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center in Watts and the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

Although critics say local officials have done too little for the neighborhoods, no other big city has had more than isolated success in developing inner-city retailing.

Mayor Tom Bradley “negotiated for years to get people to come into those areas. It just took an awful lot of cajoling and handholding and that sort of thing to get it done,” said Councilwoman Rita Walters, a Bradley ally whose 9th District includes much of South-Central.

Many community activists say they cannot count on outsiders to revitalize commerce in their neighborhoods. Rather, they say, nonprofit groups and minority entrepreneurs--regarded as more likely to recycle profits in the community--need to take the lead in fostering and launching retail businesses, consumer cooperatives and credit unions.

Other experts characterize retail flight from South Los Angeles as the product of institutional racism, and say it is far too deep-seated a problem for such self-help efforts to correct by themselves.

“In order to solve the retailing problem, there are the other problems of black L.A. to resolve,” said Edward Soja, a UCLA professor of urban planning, citing high unemployment, poverty and a shortage of investment capital. “It’s got to be solved with comprehensive development and planning.”

The abandonment of South Los Angeles is a sensitive topic that many retailers will not discuss. Executives at such major chains as Vons, Ralphs, Thrifty Drug and Montgomery Ward--all of which have retreated from or avoided the area--declined to be interviewed for this article.

Because of the paucity of retail outlets, residents of South Los Angeles frequently pay higher prices for a poorer selection of goods than elsewhere in the county. When credit is available, the interest rates tend to be steep. There often are no warranties or return policies.

For example, one furniture and appliance store on South Vermont Avenue sells a 24-cubic-foot General Electric refrigerator with water hookup and ice-maker for $2,040. The same refrigerator costs $1,300 at Circuit City in West Los Angeles.

To finance the refrigerator, Circuit City charges interest at an annual percentage rate of 20.5%. At the South Vermont store, the annual percentage rate varies with the length of the contract, but it starts at 22%.

But residents’ biggest complaint is over the price and selection of staples. One market on 59th Street is typical of the tiny enterprises that try to fill the void left by major grocery chains.

At this particular store, a bag of 30 disposable diapers costs $13.99, compared to $10.99 at a Vons store in West Los Angeles. A five-pound bag of sugar was $2.99 at the small market and $1.79 at Vons. An 18-load box of detergent ran $4.99 at the 59th Street store and $4.35 at Vons.

Beverly Blake, president of a community group named Inter-Agency Council, loses her placid demeanor when she talks about the absence of most major Southland supermarket chains from her Vermont-Slauson neighborhood.

Her closest supermarket is a Boys store. But Blake finds its long checkout lines “intolerable,” its prices high and its selection limited, lacking many of the fresh deli items, bakery goods and international foods she likes to buy. A nearby Ralphs store, she said, has similar shortcomings.

Blake also complains that the supermarkets most convenient to her home devote too much shelf space to goods that fit ethnic stereotypes.

“They probably have 50 types of cayenne peppers and Cajun seasonings,” she said, referring to the Boys store. “Just because our neighborhood is 90% Hispanic and African-American, why do they make the assumptions that that’s our only food interest?”

So, she routinely drives 25 minutes to her nearest Vons or Lucky, or to another Ralphs.

“Every time I do it, I get upset that it (the same merchandise) isn’t available to me at a local market,” said Blake. This, she added, “is the experience that we have and live with on a daily basis.”

Community activists say retailers practice racial stereotyping when selecting new locations.

The national chains “look at an area that’s mixed ethnically, and they’re not inclined to invest there,” said Andrew J. Natker, a project developer for Manhattan Beach-based Alexander Haagen Co., which manages Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza.

Natker said when he approaches sporting goods chains about coming into the mall, the standard response is that “these people don’t buy our full line of merchandise. They don’t ski.”

“That’s bull!”

Critics say retailers take a “let them come here” approach; they locate in outlying areas and count on minority customers to find a way to get to them.

Take the Culver City Target store, which is the chain’s top Southland outlet and gets an estimated 30% of its customers from South Los Angeles.

Among the reasons that Target is not in South Los Angeles, said company spokesman Hite, is that Target aims for middle-class customers. “No retailer can be all things to everyone,” he said. “So we go after the market that we think is our niche.”

He added: “We’ll put a store anywhere there’s a lot of people who want to shop for the kind of merchandise we have at Target,” provided a suitable site can be found. The chain now operates some stores in black neighborhoods of Minneapolis, Detroit and Atlanta.

But there are some retailers who have found opportunities in South Los Angeles. K mart has had stores at the Vermont-Slauson Shopping Center and in Watts for years, and it opened another in Compton a year ago.

All three are top performers, said O. Robert Benson, K mart’s regional manager for Southern California. The two established stores chalk up sales per square foot of more than $300 annually--easily surpassing the companywide goal of $250 a square foot--and the Compton store appears headed toward that level.

Why do they do so well? Among other things, Benson said, the stores are in densely populated areas and face little competition. “We serve a market that maybe others don’t want,” Benson said.

Encouraged by that success, K mart continues to expand: The company plans to enlarge its Vermont-Slauson location by 20,000 square feet, it is building a new store in Inglewood, and it is looking for another site in the area.

South Los Angeles Statistics

Here’s a look at the South Los Angeles area studied by The Times:

* Population: 1,001,185, according to the 1990 Census. That amounts to 11% of the population for all of Los Angeles County, which is 8,863,164.

* Ethnic Breakdown: South Los Angeles is 49.2% black, 44.8% Latino, 3.6% Anglo and 1.8% Asian or Pacific Islander. Countywide, the breakdown is 40.8% Anglo, 37.8% Latino, 10.5% black and 10.2% Asian or Pacific Islander.

* Number of stores: In 1988, the most recent year for which Claritas Corp. has estimates available, the number was 2,411. Based on the population in the 1990 census, that would be one store for every 415 residents. Countywide, the ratio is one store for every 203 residents.

* Number of service businesses: 3,454, or one for every 290 residents. Countywide, the ratio is one service business for every 103 residents. This category includes such enterprises as movie theaters, auto repair shops, law firms and hotels, but not financial institutions or restaurants.

* Median household income: The 1990 figure, the most recent estimate available, was $20,820. That is 32% less than the countywide median of $30,525.

* Access to credit: Median bank credit card limit per household is $4,881, versus $7,064 countywide.

* Credit problems: 53.7% of the households have at least one “derogatory indicator” in their credit files, versus 33.5% for households countywide.

Sources: U.S. Census, Claritas Corp., Urban Decision Systems, TRW Target Marketing Services Division.

A Look at Two Shopping Districts

The following is a snapshot of sections of Inglewood and North Hollywood, chosen for their roughly similar household incomes and differing racial makeup.

Inglewood (ZIP codes 90303 and 90305)

Median household income: $29,450

Median age: 28.35

Population: 42,124

Population by race:

white: 4.7%

black: 63.8%

Latino: 29.6%

other: 1.9%

North Hollywood (ZIP code 91606)

Median household income: $26,302

Median age: 30.3

Population: 42,202

Population by race

white: 46.3%

black: 3.7%

Latino: 43.1%

other: 6.9%

Sources: 1990 income figures are from Urban Decision Systems Inc., a marketing data firm. All other figures are from the 1990 Census.


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