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Grocery Limits at Big-Box Stores Proposed

Supervisors: Flynn is pushing for an ordinance to help traditional supermarkets stay competitive, but consumers object.


Attention Wal-Mart shoppers: Supervisor John K. Flynn is asking his colleagues to consider limiting the sale of groceries at your favorite big-box discount store.

Flynn said an ordinance, if adopted, would limit the number of food items for sale in new warehouse-style stores, enabling traditional supermarkets to stay competitive as low-cost, high-volume giants dominate the industry.

But Supervisor Frank Schillo said such an ordinance, proposed by organized labor and California's biggest supermarket chains, would "interfere with the free flow of the market."

And Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar bill last fall that would have prevented Wal-Mart and its rival Costco from expanding into the lucrative California grocery business, calling it "anti-competition" and "anti-consumer."

Both stores offer a variety of food items, from produce and meats to snacks and soft drinks. Currently there are no big-box stores in the unincorporated areas of Ventura County, so the significance of the proposed measure is mostly symbolic.

At today's supervisors meeting, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union is scheduled to make a presentation to the Board of Supervisors suggesting that big-box stores are edging out American farmers and workers by purchasing goods outside the U.S., said Chris Ivey, a spokesman for Local 1036, which represents 12,000 workers in six counties in California.

Wal-Mart officials say the union is attempting to stifle competition. The company sent a letter last week asking supervisors to postpone discussion of the issue until the Arkansas-based company could have a corporate representative available to speak before the board.

"Consumers deserve a choice, and this one union should not be able to dictate what merchandise Ventura County consumers can access," said Cynthia Lin, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart.

But Flynn said that county supervisors should support grocery store employees to "show some leadership on an issue" that could cut jobs and benefits of thousands of Ventura County workers.

The United Food & Commercial Workers' Region 8, based in Buena Park, contributed $500 to Flynn's reelection campaign in January.

But Flynn said the donation in no way influenced his decision to support the union's efforts, adding that he has "worked with that union before. And we're not passing anything, we're just hearing a report."

Warehouse-style stores are forcing smaller grocery store chains to merge and eventually cut jobs, wages and benefits, he said.

"I tend to be on the union side of the issue," Flynn said. "Most of the big-box stores don't pay the salaries and benefits that supermarkets do."

Shoppers interviewed Monday sided with the mega-retailers. Several consumers said a measure that restricts big-box stores from selling food would also keep them from saving money.

While loading bags into their car at the Oxnard Wal-Mart, Paula Evans and her mother, Joann Sedwick, bragged that they had just saved $19 by buying groceries at the discount store.

Evans said she drives her mother to the store from Ojai twice a week, because with coupons they save more at Wal-Mart than anywhere else in Ventura County.

She called Flynn's proposal "nuts."

"We have a right to shop wherever we want, wherever we get the best deals," Evans said. "I'll probably still go to Vons [sometimes], but I still need to have the choice."

But such low prices are threatening American grocery workers and farmers, said Ivey, the union spokesman.

"The big-box marketing strategy is to buy merchandise wherever they can buy it the cheapest, and that's not always America," he said.

The union is asking supervisors to amend Ventura County's General Plan to restrict new stores of more than 90,000 square feet from devoting more than 3% of their sales area to nontaxable merchandise, such as meats and produce.

Shoppers said they favor big-box stores because they are more convenient and offer a variety of items in one place.

Ray Valles, 40, of Goleta visited Wal-Mart on Monday afternoon to get some keys made and pick up some oil for his car. While there,, he bought groceries for the week.

"When I'm down here, I picked up some cereal and soda," he said. "Because it's cheaper. That's one of the draws."

While toting her 1-year-old son, Michael, Tera Huffman, 19, of Port Hueneme, placed grocery bags into her car and explained she doesn't have time to shop around.

Shopping at Wal-Mart "is easier on me because I don't have to go a lot of different places," she said.

Jonie Mosby Mitchell said she simply can't find everything she needs at her grocery store in Santa Paula, and that's why she goes to Costco in Oxnard.

All stores "should be able to carry what they want to carry," she said.

Piccalo is a Times Community News reporter; Surman is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Anna Gorman also contributed to this story.

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