Local and national media are currently pushing a narrative that Seattle’s best days are over. Normally, we pay little attention to such stories. Until last week, when a broadcast station claimed that Safeway may be closing three South Seattle stores due to losses incurred from shoplifting.
The story isn’t true. The truth is that we have never considered closing our Rainier Valley, Rainier Beach or Othello stores. In fact, we have imminent plans to reinvest in our Seattle stores with seven remodels and three complex redevelopments in 2019.
We take our role as the sole or primary grocery store in these communities very seriously. We also take pride in the fact that Safeway has stores in more locations around the city than any other grocer, many in locations that other grocers choose to ignore. We don’t threaten to move, or close stores, as a means to gain concessions or retreat from challenges.
We understand the difficulties retailers face here. Our stores are much less profitable in Seattle than in other cities due to regulations and property crimes. Also, we are in an era of top-down regulation, where companies are told by the city what to do and how to do it. That’s a city’s right; we respect that, and adjust our business accordingly.
But the issues that currently challenge Seattle — homelessness, addiction, the high shelter costs — won’t be solved unless businesses, civic leaders and nongovernmental organizations work together. To date, retailers haven’t been offered a meaningful seat at the table when the city works to address these issues.
That is a lost opportunity because neighborhood grocers, like Safeway, are on the front lines of all these problems. We can and want to be part of the solutions. Better still, we understand how true collaboration works.
For example, shoplifting, specifically the current trend of organized retail crime, is a major challenge. Instead of pointing fingers at the Seattle Police Department, we doggedly pursued a mutually beneficial partnership.
Together we instituted “Coffee With a Cop” in our stores. SPD officers and leaders regularly meet with customers to talk about neighborhood safety. Also, SPD officers and specialized Safeway teams work together to identify organized rings of shoplifters who steal and resell high-dollar items on internet marketplaces. Lastly, officers have greatly increased parking lot patrols and regularly stroll the stores.
These are nuanced, low-profile programs because we want our stores to be safe and welcoming. And the programs are working. Our rates of property crime and theft have fallen.
On the other end of the spectrum, when Seattle passed a sweetened beverage tax, we didn’t agree with the initial premise that it reduces sugary drink consumption, especially in the way it was required to be implemented in stores. The city didn’t involve us in conversations when they drafted the ordinance. This was top-down regulation.
However, we did not shun the city for passing this tax. Instead, we joined with the city to use the tax funds to expand access to healthy and affordable food through Fresh Bucks. This program incentivizes customers who use SNAP/EBT benefits to purchase more fresh produce and closes the “food security gap” by allowing low-income families who don’t qualify for SNAP to do the same.
Fresh Bucks is good policy. It makes sense to create a program that is implemented where the target population already shops, and partner with a private-sector business that can easily adapt to program changes and provide analysis about how effectively the program changes purchasing habits. It was an obvious choice for us to participate because this type of large-scale collaboration between the private and public sector is truly necessary to provide meaningful access to affordable and healthy food.
We also create union jobs and hire people directly from the communities surrounding our stores, including those with significant barriers to employment, such as language, disabilities and prior convictions. Many go on to thrive in meaningful careers in our stores, and they are truly what make us a neighborhood grocery store.
We’ve demonstrated a desire and willingness to work with Seattle on initiatives to improve life and health here. But we know we can do more.
Based on what we see in our stores every day, rumors of the city’s demise are greatly exaggerated. We believe in Seattle. It’s time for city leaders to work with retailers — large and small — on solutions that make Seattle a great place to live.