Safeway Responds to User Complaints

Neighbors, Safeway Open Dialogue Following an East of the River Article in March

Safeway has changed up management and plans to upgrade service after community frustrations bubbled over in March regarding the store’s two Ward 7 operations — 322 40th St. NE and at 2845 Alabama Ave. SE. Residents want store representatives to bring the discussion to the community in a public meeting.

Following a March report in the East of the River newspaper that detailed the differences between product choices, cleanliness and amenities in Safeways in other wards and the Safeways in Ward 7,  a meeting with the store was announced by local leaders and then abruptly cancelled on March 16.

The community wants to renew a tired, years-long conversation about the Ward 7 stores’ substandard service and low-quality food options.

“[The article] brought to light some of the complaints that people have been voicing for some time,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7D Chair Sherice A. Muhammad. Her residents shop at those Safeway stores.

Fighting the Grocery Deficit

Neighbors in wards 7 and 8 continue to fight for access to grocery stores in their own ward — quality is a whole additional issue. In Ward 7, with a population of more than 70,000, residents are limited to two main grocery stores, the two Safeways, according to DC Hunger Solutions. To contrast that, in Ward 6 residents have access to multiple Harris Teeters, three Safeways, Giant, Yes! Organic, fresh markets and the new Whole Foods store on H Street NE. A Trader Joe’s is also expected near Eastern Market.  

Many residents want to know what the District and grocers have planned to solve this unequal access to a basic necessity, said Muhammad. Commissioners and residents, and they plan to talk with the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Economic Development (DMPED), the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs (DCRA) and Councilmember Gray to solve the problems.

“This is not neuroscience — this is basic day-to-day business operations,” Muhammad said. “We have a market, we have a demand and we’re trying to meet the people and their needs.”

Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D) called the food desert problem in Ward 7 “very urgent” when it comes to keeping the ward’s residents healthy. Statistics show high rates of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other health problems east of the Anacostia, which he said is related to a lack of access to fresh food and convenient grocery options.

“Having affordably priced food available for purchase for yourself and your family is urgent,” Gray said. “It is fundamental.”

DMPED’s Plans for East of the River

DC launched a grocer tax incentive program “Supermarket Tax Exemption Act” in 2000 for new grocers. The two Safeways in Ward 7 didn’t qualify because they already had established the stores. But despite this incentive, grocery options in both Ward 7 and 8 have decreased in the last decade.

In January 2016, Wal-Mart pulled out of its plans to develop two stores in DC, one each in Ward 7’s Skyland Town Center and Capitol Gateway Project.

DMPED, the Department of Health, the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity’s office and the Food Policy Council have continued to work on expanding fresh food options in both Ward 7 and 8, said DMPED spokesperson Joaquin McPeek.

“We are working to both utilize existing tools and incentives, including the tax incentives mentioned above, New Markets Tax Credits, and District-owned land, as well as to determine what other tools and resources may be needed,” he said.

McPeek pointed to several ideas in consideration — a plan to sign a full-service grocer in Skyland, to try a Whole Foods market pop up at the Gateway Pavilion, farmers markets and smaller grocers like the Good Foods Market.

Gray also introduced three bills in the DC City Council in March that look at drawing affordably priced grocery and retail options to the area. He also introduced a fourth piece of legislation in January.

  • “East End Health Care Desert, Retail Desert and Food Desert Elimination Act of 2017”
  • “East End Grocery and Retail Incentive Program Tax Abatement Act of 2017”
  • “East End Surplus Allocation Equitable Investment Act of 2017”
  •  “East End Commercial Real Property Tax Rate Reduction Amendment Act of 2017”

“Upon approval, this legislation will spark an immediate surge of new economic development and job creation for neighborhoods on the East End of the District of Columbia,” Gray said. “New businesses will move to the East End of the city and existing businesses will have more money to hire new workers, raise wages, or to re-invest in the business.”

The real property tax rate reduction act would lower the Class 2 real property tax rate for commercial properties east of the Anacostia in order to pull the rate down to 85 cents per $100 for 10 years. The idea: stimulate both large and small business growth in the area by offering lower rates for retailers to establish, bringing jobs and shopping options.

But as residents wait for developers to bite and legislation to pass, they want the few available options to clean up their act.

Skeptical But Hopeful

Community members want Safeway to come to the table. They want access to quality produce, groceries and service like several of the other wards in the District have. And they want Safeway to treat them, the actual residents and not politicians, seriously, said long time Ward 7 resident and former ANC commissioner Greg Rhett.

“If they think that they’re going to work their way through this via political contacts in the Wilson Building, that’s an ill advised approach,” Rhett said. “There aren’t enough people in that building to keep Safeway open.”

Rhett sees the problem as a consumer base issue, not a political or public relations concern. If Safeway wants to keep its current customer base and expand, it has to address the service and quality problems. It comes down to providing a good shopping experience for customers.

He and his family haven’t shopped at Safeway in close to a decade because of the horrible experiences, he said. He now goes to the Safeway on Capitol Hill along 14th Street SE.

“I don’t need Safeway to make me feel good — I need them to offer a quality product with affordable prices,” Rhett said.

So far, Safeway has brought in two veteran managers for the 40th Street and Alabama Avenue stores, Dale Norton and Spiro Laventis. They also upgraded the stores’ scheduling technology to better staff in rush hour times, led the Safeway teams through “super cleaning” programs to improve long term maintenance standards, and are planning to bring in a new assortment of product offerings based on customer input, Goldberg said.

Community leaders like Michele Tingling-Clemmons, president of the Central Northeast Civic Association; Rochelle Frazier-Gray, president of the Eastland Gardens Civic Association; Rhett and Muhammad insist that Safeway hold a community meeting to hear first-hand residents complaints and address their concerns.

The community has questions and they want answers.

“It is my hope that they will reschedule,” Frazier-Gray said, “but with each passing day, it seems more unlikely.”\

Upcoming Plans to Meet

Safeway plans to hold a meeting with Councilmember Gray, to also meet with a customer who recently complained about one of the stores and to retool the offerings and management at both stores, said Beth Goldberg, spokesperson for Safeway’s Eastern Division.

The meeting with the store that local leaders advertised and then Safeway cancelled on March 16 won’t be rescheduled as an open community meeting, Goldberg said. The original meeting plan involved Safeway representatives meeting with a few residents about a complaint — Safeway didn’t intend the meeting as a public forum. But Goldberg clarified that Safeway welcomes feedback at any time (customers can call the store or email Goldberg at beth.goldberg@safeway.com).

“When customers give us feedback on what they enjoy and the enhancements they want to see in their shopping experience, they help ensure that we are offering the products and services they want in their neighborhood store,” she said.

Councilmember Gray plans to discuss the community concerns and complaints residents made in the East of the River article with Safeway, his spokesperson Janis Hazel said. He also wants to know what Safeway’s vision is for the stores and possible expansion.

“Retailers must be responsive to their customers,” Gray said. “Anytime complaints along the lines of outdated food, unsanitary conditions, poor customer service are voiced, my expectation is that the retailer will address and correct these deficiencies immediately.”

Community members appreciate the renewed discussion, but still want to see talk turn into action.

This article will be printed in the April Edition of East of the River.


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