Persistent leak – Area residents shop outside of county for a variety of reasons
Jeanie Berg of Grass Valley is the kind of consumer western Nevada County merchants have night-mares about.
“I find that shopping at the Galleria in Roseville is more exciting than downtown Grass Valley,” she said. “Customer service is a priority. Grass Valley merchants and employees give the impression of being disinterested.”
Berg is not alone among area residents who choose to spend significant amounts of money outside the county, “leakage” that promoters of local business find difficult to stop.
An analysis prepared for the city of Grass Valley in July estimated that residents of the Grass Valley/Highway 49 corridor – roughly Grass Valley to the Bear River – spent more that $58 million outside the county in 2003.
Burnes Consulting of Grass Valley conducted a survey for the city in 1999 that concluded that 57 percent of people in the area shop outside the county at least once a month.
“Major items such as automobiles, computers, furniture and home furnishings and appliances lead the products the population is leaving town for,” the report stated.
Howard Levine, executive director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association, points out that every dollar spent outside the county means less sales tax revenue to finance government services, less support for community activities from local merchants, and a lower standard of living for people employed by the merchants.
Several factors are at play in the leakage of retail dollars. The 2000 U.S. Census reported that almost 28 percent of the county’s work force commutes to jobs outside the county, and they tend to spend money where they work.
Some items, such as German automobiles, just aren’t available in the county. Increasingly popular Internet retail sites drain dollars from local merchants, and catalogues remain popular.
But recently, The Union asked members of its community-wide Reader Circle to weigh in on the issue, and several cited three issues they said drive them out of the county: Price, availability and service.
When Burnes Consulting asked residents what factors they consider when deciding where to shop, competitive prices topped the list – 55 percent said it is “a very important factor.”
Many residents believe local merchants are deficient in that area.
“I regularly shop for my groceries at Sam’s Club and WinCo in Yuba City. I save 50 percent on my food bill,” said Debra Kerti of Nevada City. “I bought my tires at Sam’s Club and saved $300 compared to what they wanted to charge me here.”
“It is fun to shop and look (in Grass Valley) but not necessarily conducive to buying as prices are fairly high,” wrote Ginny Kirkley of Penn Valley.
“Both Grass Valley and Nevada City seem to cater more to tourists than local residents, and there is nothing especially wrong with that. However, it does force local residents to go down the hill toward Auburn or Marysville/Yuba City and on to Sacramento.”
“What does Grass Valley/Nevada City/Penn Valley need to get us to shop there?” asked Herb Lindberg of Penn Valley. “We need a store where we can buy everyday items at rock-bottom prices.”
There are no studies that compare the local cost of goods with prices outside the county, but Levine doesn’t buy the argument.
“The idea that you can’t find what you need in Nevada County is not real,” he said. “You can find what you need, and you can find it at a reasonable price.”
Levine touched on another area that propels shoppers out of the county: Selection, or the perceived lack of it.
“Why do we shop regularly outside the county?” Lindberg asked. “That’s a no-brainer. Everyone we know shops outside the county for anything substantial or when needing a wide selection to make a choice.”
Simi Lyss of Nevada City likes to shop locally, but he and his wife “go to Roseville about once a week to shop for many things not available here,” he wrote. “We are not going for price but almost always for availability.”
An online survey done for The Union by Pulse Research in 2003 revealed that area residents like the selection they find at so-called big box stores when they leave the county to shop. Costco, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Best Buy scored high in the survey.
But that doesn’t mean people are ready for big box stores in western Nevada County.
“I try very hard not to buy outside the local area,” wrote Penelope Curtis of Cedar Ridge. “I believe that shopping locally supports our economy and keeps the big box stores out. It is an investment in the community in which I live.”
Sue Amick, owner of Foothill Mercantile in Grass Valley, hears other merchants express concern at downtown association meetings and other forums, but there is no obvious solution to the problem.
“I’d like to see longer store hours,” she said. “We have a lot more stores open on Sunday now … That does help with tourist dollars as well as local.”
Levine concedes merchants always have to work at improving service and product mix, and no retail area ever has enough quality merchants. Still, he wonders why people move into the area and spend money elsewhere.
“People say they want the quality of life we have,” he said. “That quality of life was made on Main Street, it wasn’t made at Costco.”
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