Community Foods Market is looking for a community boost. The West Oakland grocery store has seen sales decline by 35% since December 2020. To counteract the decline, the market has launched a Save Our Store (SOS) booster campaign.
According to Community Foods Market founder and CEO Brahm Ahmadi, there are both fewer customers shopping, and those who do come in are buying less.
“We’ve seen regular customers go from full shopping carts to hand baskets and now just a few items in their hands,” said Ahmadi in a video released with Sharon Rance, a store supervisor.
Ahmadi attributes the drop to two main factors. The first is a discomfort some customers have about being in a public place during a pandemic. Many of Community Food’s customers are elderly and immunocompromised, according to Ahmadi. The second is that financial pressures from an economic recession have customers reevaluating their budgets and shifting their shopping habits to larger, corporate stores to either save money, or because they believe doing so will cut their own expenses.
“I believe that many people who are under financial hardship are reverting back to shopping at corporate stores based on misperceptions and misunderstandings that doing so can save them money,” said Ahmadi.
Ahmadi points out that any grocery bill also has to factor the cost of transit, which could mean an additional charge if the shopper has to pay for gas or transit. So the further a customer has to travel, the less they are going to save, even if the sales receipts suggest otherwise.
Ahmadi also claims that Community Foods does regular price comparisons with nearby competitors — Target and Pak n Save in Emeryville, and Sprouts on Broadway in Oakland — to ensure that prices can stay competitive against chain retailers.
“Yet there is a misperception that, since we are a small business and an independent grocer, we must be more expensive,” said Ahmadi. “It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. This is fairly common and predictable behavior during more difficult economic periods.”
The decline in shopping has tipped off a string of financial dominoes. Because of lower sales, Community Foods Market has had to buy from wholesalers in smaller volumes and at higher prices. To keep retail prices competitive and affordable for customers, the market has had to reduce its profit margins and look for other ways to cut costs, including letting more than a third of their staff go.
Ahmadi is straightforward with the diagnosis. If Community Foods Market cannot get back to where its sales were in November 2020 or earlier, then it is doubtful the store can outlast the summer. Hard news for any business, but one that feels especially hard for Community Foods.
The grocery store, located at 3105 San Pablo Avenue, was not just a way to make money or bring jobs to West Oakland, though it does both those things. It was conceived as a way to bring fresh, nutritious, and affordable foods to a collection of neighborhoods — McClymonds, Hoover-Foster, and Clawson — that hadn’t had a full service grocery store in more than 40 years.
Ahmadi spent a decade just doing the footwork to make a grocery store possible, and then nearly another decade to open Community Foods. The business opened June 2019. To lose the store after less than two years in business and 20 years of work could set the clock back 40 years.
Which is something Ahmadi hopes to avoid with a booster campaign, asking customers to commit to doing their grocery shopping at least once a month at Community Foods Market — either in person or online — and to get five people they know to do the same. Boosters are encouraged as well to spread the word on social media
Customers can also get referral cards, which they can give to friends to fill out and drop off at the store. Each referral card acts as an entry ticket to a weekly drawing of a $200 gift certificate, which the store will do for six weeks in a row, for six separate winners.
It’s not quite a fundraiser, even if it comes with a giveaway and Community Foods does also have a GoFundMe page where people can also donate money. The SOS booster campaign is more of a community pledge. A plea for customers to show their values with their dollars.
“Our goal is to bring people back to the store to see that CFM is, in fact, well priced,” said Ahmadi. “If this happens, I believe enough people will switch back to put us back on good footing.”