It's the end of an era. With the announcement in mid-September that it would sell 11 of its Charleston-area stores, the family-owned Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. signaled an important shift in the local grocery marketplace. As a self-proclaimed localist, this broke my heart when I read the news.
I remember that when I first started Lowcountry Local First working out of my home, trying to meet as many business owners as possible, someone from The Pig called me. They saw so much synergy in what we were doing to support local and independent businesses that they came on board as one of our first member supporters, an important moment for our fledgling organization.
Over the years, I've often found myself explaining to folks what makes Piggly Wiggly Carolina local when there are other Piggly Wigglys across the country. The individual owners of Piggly Wiggly purchase the franchise rights to use the name, but what differentiates their model from other franchises is that the independent owners can call themselves anything they choose, they can purchase from any vendor they want, and they have the ability to use other local businesses in the area to provide goods and services for their stores. This had a tremendous economic impact on the Lowcountry, one that will undoubtedly be diminished under Kroger and Bi-Lo's non-local leadership.
It was a sad day. But what is the bigger lesson to be learned? According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Walmart accounted for only a small share of our grocery dollars just 15 years ago. Today, they capture an unthinkable $1 out of every $4 spent on food, receiving 50 percent of all grocery sales in 29 metro areas. It's a mind-boggling example of consolidation, mass-production, and the increasing globalization of services that are better, safer, and more sustainable if maintained locally.
What does this mean for us as consumers, business owners, and farmers? It means that in order to survive more and more grocery store chains are being forced to go the way of Piggly Wiggly. Consolidation is occurring at a rapid rate. These mergers mean that our food system is being consolidated down to a few big companies that now corner the market not only in retail, but also in meat packing and dairy. The big companies created by these mergers are now the massive middlemen between farmers and eaters. This drives down the market share that farmers receive, and each year they statistically receive a lower dollar amount for their hard-earned product. Moreover, this does not mean that the consumer will be paying less. These consolidated systems drive up the prices for consumers because there are fewer choices and less competition in the marketplace.
But like many across the Lowcountry, the news hit me on a personal level as well. My son's first job was at the Piggly Wiggly near our home. It was close enough that he could ride his bike, and I remember the first day he came home with a badge that said his name and listed him as an "owner" — not bag boy, check out boy, or stock boy, but owner. Not bad for a 16-year-old!
That is another example of the great corporate citizen that Piggly Wiggly has been. I cannot honestly think of another local employee-owned business anywhere near the size and scope of The Pig. This is why many of their employees have been with them for decades — they are invested in the success of the business.
So, yes, it saddens me on multiple levels that The Pig is selling so many of their stores. It saddens me because I know so many food entrepreneurs who sell to Piggly Wiggly and have been shepherded through the process of how to get their product on the shelves by caring employees who want to support local producers. It saddens me because they have had a tremendous impact on the community in terms of giving back that will be a substantial loss to many nonprofits, sports teams, and schools. It saddens me that perhaps, as a community, we didn't rally around The Pig the way that The Pig has rallied around us.
Jamee Haley is executive director of Lowcountry Local First, lowcountrylocalfirst.org.