Friday, January 20, 2012

Grocers not bothered by food stamp shift

Albertsons: ĎItís not that big of a dealí

Express Staff Writer

Grocery store lobbyists are throwing their support behind efforts to change food stamp distribution and privatize liquor sales, but the impact of these movements to local grocers is still unclear.

Idaho food stamps are distributed on the first of each month, leading to some stores' experiencing mad rushes on those days.

The state Department of Health and Welfare and the Northwest Grocers Association have proposed shifting the distribution from a single day to a staggered 10-day distribution system beginning in May.

Food stamp beneficiaries would still receive the same amount of stamps at a time, but they may receive them later in the month than they are accustomed to. According to the department, 235,000 Idahoans are now receiving food stamps, up from just 95,433 in 2008.

Department of Health and Welfare Administrator Russ Barron said that number is growing at a rate of 6 percent per year.

The state switched from a five-day distribution system to a single-day system in 2009 to increase department efficiency, allowing the department to lay off three workers and save $220,000 a year. Idaho is the only state in the Northwest to distribute all $30 million of food stamp benefits on a single day.

Northwest Grocers Association President Joe Gilliam said switching back to a multi-day system would be well worth the price. Grocers are even willing to pay $100,000 of the changeover cost.

"In the last two years, my industry has lost over $1 million in spoiled food over this, just in Idaho," Gilliam said. "It's just grossly inefficient."


He said the reason for the losses is that during rushes, frustrated customers will abandon filled carts and come back another day. Frozen and perishable food in the carts cannot be put back on shelves, leading to losses for the store.

However, Atkinsons' Market co-owner Chip Atkinson said that isn't a problem for his stores.

"Honestly, I would say that does not happen," he said, adding, "If you're Winco, it might."

Area stores do see a slight rush to the checkout lines on the first of the month, according to Atkinson and Donnie Green, manager of Albertsons' Hailey store. Atkinson said the increase in sales is more noticeable at his stores in Hailey and Bellevue than at the Ketchum store.

"Basically, I shouldn't say that the rush is a huge rush," he said. "The number of tenders [transactions] that we get with food stamp usage goes up and then declines through the month."

Green said the Hailey Albertsons does see a small rush, but not anything the store can't handle.

"It's decent, but not compared to what you would see in other valleys," he said. "It's not that big of a deal to our store. Some of the other store directors I've spoken to are pretty excited about it."

Atkinson seemed mildly interested in the legislation to shift food stamp distribution, but said it would only serve to make the number of transactions more even throughout the month.

He said he doesn't increase staffing on the first of the month, and so he would not really have to change his operating practices.

"People tend to use a big chunk of [food stamp benefits] when they get it," he said. "[The change] would just smooth out some of the blips over the month."

The food stamp distribution change must be approved by the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee as part of its budget approval process this session.

Katherine Wutz:

Liquor at grocery stores?

The Northwest Grocers Association also is working on a movement to place a voter initiative to privatize liquor sales on next November's ballot.

According to the Associated Press, Grocers Association President Joe Gilliam met with Gov. Butch Otter last month to explore moving liquor sales from state-owned dispensaries to private stores.

The meeting follows a victory for the association in Washington state in which voters recently approved a plan to allow stores that occupy more than 10,000 square feet to sell liquor along with beer and wine.

Atkinsons' Market co-owner Chip Atkinson said that if a similar change happened in Idaho, his store would certainly consider adding hard liquor to its alcoholic offerings.

"That could be very interesting for our business," he said. "It would definitely add a new opportunity, without necessarily increasing the risks."

Atkinsons' Markets already must comply with state laws requiring clerks to check the identification of all customers buying wine and beer.

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