Opinion: Closure of Fred’s stores temporary blow, but may be long-term opportunity

Published 9:16 am Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The news that Fred’s will close two stores in Columbus by the end of May has alarmed long-time patrons of the stores and moved Mayor Robert Smith to pen a letter to the chain’s corporate office in Memphis pleading for the company to change its mind.

The reaction is interesting. Over the years, a wide variety of chain stores have left the city. While the general response from the community has been disappointment, there has rarely been an effort to rally behind those stores and keep them here as we are seeing in this case.

It’s clear that patrons of these two stores — one on Alabama Street, the other on Fifth Street in downtown Columbus — have a deep connection with the stores. It’s worth noting that the downtown store, in particular, has been a fixture in the area for approaching a half-century. Other downtown businesses have come and gone. Fred’s remained. Some customers have been shopping at Fred’s for decades.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

While it is possible the pleas to keep the stores open may succeed, it’s unlikely.

The store closings are two of more than 100 “under-performing” Fred’s stores that are set to be closed. The scale of the closures strongly suggests this is not some impulse decision. Rather, it’s based on cold, hard facts — and little else. It’s doubtful that those who made this decision have ever darkened the doorway of either Columbus store. There is no emotional investment. It’s strictly a business decision.

Given that, the best approach for our community is to view this as an opportunity.

There are strong arguments to be made for local investment in these soon-to-be-vacant properties.

The depth of feeling expressed over the closure of these stores suggests there is a dedicated customer base. Many of the Southside customers say Fred’s is the only access they have to purchase basic food items and other household products.

In a city without public transportation, those who do not own a car have come to rely on these stores to meet their needs.

Such places are called “food deserts” and there are federal grants available to support stores that agree to operate in those areas. That’s definitely worth exploring.

For years now, people have noted a need for a grocery store to serve the downtown area — Gayle Guynup suggested a community grocery store as a possible tenant for the Depot when she purchased the property in 2014.

Businesses need a customer base to be successful, obviously. The outpouring of support for Fred’s, even with its limited supply of grocery items, suggests such a customer base exists.

We have long been an advocate for locally-owned small businesses, which — unlike chains — do have a personal investment in the community and keep all of the revenue generated by their businesses circulating in the local economy rather than being sent off to some far-away corporate office.

We do not criticize citizens and city leaders for their efforts to ask Fred’s to reconsider its decision.

But the better course of action may be to encourage and support local investment in these properties.

Losing Fred’s is a blow, we concede.

But it also may be an opportunity to provide even better service.

This editorial was originally published in The (Columbus) Commercial Dispatch newspaper.