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Convenience store business outgrowing demand

By Justin Boron

A loose group of regular customers drift in and out of the Race n' Go convenience store in Jonesboro, laying stacks of bills on the counter for gas and the occasional newspaper or soft drink.

Conversation is muted and the grocery aisles are almost always empty.

Business is drowsy at best, and the rising number of new convenience stores in Clayton County may be to blame.

An influx of gas station stores has carved up the Clayton County convenience market; each one taking a piece of the 250,000 person community, dense with commuters looking to fill their tanks and pick up sundry items like cigarettes, snacks, and lottery tickets.

In past years, smaller stores like Race n' Go were able succeed, said Eddie Williams, director of community development.

But the expansive convenience store growth may be approaching its peak as portions of the Clayton market continue to shrink with the addition of each new store.

"It hurts our business to spread the market so thin," said Billy Powell, owner of Race n' Go, which has been in Jonesboro for 12 years.

Clayton County business expanded sharply in 2004, producing a 30 percent increase in the number of licenses issued despite a national economic downturn.

Community development officials attribute much of the business increase to convenience store growth, which at first, Williams said he anticipated would be overkill. But in his opinion, the new stores are surviving.

While few stores are going completely defunct, a steep decline in the number of people moving through each store has limited profitability, making the convenience venture little more than a way to pay the bills, Powell said.

"I've got to do something, I've got to make a living, but that's about it," he said.

Signs that the convenience store business may be expanding beyond the community's demand are clear in places like the Rana Food Mart, which opened three months ago and has struggled to pull the volume of clientele needed to succeed.

Located on the often, congested Tara Boulevard, the store can't even manage to attract a sufficient number of customers to warrant a local newspaper rack, said the store's owner Aftab Ahmed.

Occasionally, a customer paying for gas will wander into the Food Mart, but its empty aisles with little missing from the grocery shelves illustrate the amount of traffic the store receives.

"I hope more people come in eventually," Ahmed said.

Although Rana Food Mart is already part of the surplus in convenience expansion, Ahmed said he worries that further market saturation could draw customers from his already meager base.

The concern has prompted him, along with other storeowners, to call for a halt to the construction of any new stores.

Several of the owners suggested that the county government take measures to inhibit convenience store growth, by issuing fewer licenses.

"There's too many, most intersections have four of them," Powell said.

Shenul Attaf, who owns the Chevron Food Mart in Jonesboro, said the stretched-thin market has put a shunt in the flow of business through her store as well, and forced her to consider selling out altogether.

"They shouldn't allow as many convenience stores into Clayton as they do," she said.