Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Price of Convenience

Every couple of years or so, I feel it incumbent to perform my duties as a citizen and warn my fellows against convenience stores.

Wait. Don’t stop reading. This will get more interesting shortly.

This time around, I am motivated by seeing an elderly woman belly-up to the counter at a 7-11 and fish out nickels, dimes and pennies to buy a lottery card. She emptied the pockets of a worn skirt and picked the coins from the gathering of lint, matchbooks, non-winning lotto cards, a ballpoint pen cap, a Bic lighter, and a keychain with one key on it. She used the key to scratch out the silver gunk covering the card’s collection of numbers. She didn’t win, which was not a surprise. 

Most lottery odds are astronomical. One in 175,223,510 for the $40,000,000 Powerball, with almost the same numbers for Mega Million.  Smaller scratch-off contests, such as the one the woman was playing, are somewhat better odds with much lower pay-offs.  So let’s admit it, convenient stores sell impossible dreams.

Lottery players are overwhelmingly lower income. They’re looking for the miracle that is unlikely to occur. The rational is that a dollar or so a day isn’t going to bankrupt anyone, but the people I see playing almost daily are spending a lot more than a buck. One convenience store near me recently hung a banner in its window proclaiming it had sold a $10,000-winning lottery ticket, and the man behind the counter laughed as he told me the winner had been buying five-dollar tickets there daily for more than a decade, so he may, or may not, have gotten back some of the money he spent. But probably not.

And all of this would be OK save that these very same establishments also sell addictive drugs--beer and wine, cigarettes, snuff and other tobacco products--crappy food either deep fried, full of sugar, or both; sodas sweetened with cancer-causing additives; nudie and gun magazines, and, in one case, a magazine full of nude women handling high-powered semi-automatic rifles (is this a great country or what?); pharmaceuticals in tiny, high-priced vials; the throw-away phones favored by drug dealers; and, of course, super high-calorie frozen drinks so sweet they’re guaranteed to make any child hyper.

But wait, there’s more. Almost all stores have an ATM, so if you don’t have the cash on hand to buy any of the above, you can punch in a withdrawal from your savings account. And let’s not forget these stores are basically designed for those among us who can’t or don’t plan ahead and are willing to buy four aspirins for two dollars because we ran out and now really need them.   

There are a couple of such stores in my immediate vicinity. I go there three or four times a week to buy a cup of coffee because I don’t necessarily want to pay Starbucks prices, and here’s something I’ve noticed: there are never any expensive cars in the stores’ parking lots.  No Mercedes or Caddies or Aston-Martins. Mostly there are trucks and vans, old beaters and Japanese rice-burners that have seen better days. In other words, the people who rely on the convenient stores are the ones who can least afford to shop there.

It is said that in the suburbs, convenience store owners, much like the folks who own fast food places, are almost all millionaires, and it makes sense. Many such places are family run. The overhead is relatively low, the markup extremely high, and salaries hover around minimum wage. Convenience stores, like liquor stores, seldom go bankrupt.

The other side of that coin is that such stores are at higher risk of robbery since they’re often open all night. In fact, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, convenience store robberies account for six percent of all robberies known to the police, and convenience store employees suffer from a workplace homicide rate second only to that of taxicab drivers.

Risky business, both for the employees and the customers.



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