By Linda Ong
When shoppers inside Best Choice Foods in Chinatown look down, they see hundreds of old orange price tags scattered and stuck to the floor. The discarded price tags represent the owners’ commitment to adjusting their prices daily. Since 2008, U. Win Myint and Yu Yu Khin have struggled to compete with the influx of new Asian grocers opening in Chinatown.
“These stores took away many of my customers,” said Myint, who matched his wife in a washed-out collar blue shirt and faded jeans. “It was hard.”
In the past decade, ethnic grocery stores have become some of the fastest growing stores in the United States. Now, Chinatown is flooded with Asian-specialty markets, putting a strain on long-time grocers, like Myint and Khin. Profits for Best Choice Foods have declined, and Myint said revenue is now 25-percent less than that prior to 2008.
“Before, we could set prices however we wanted and people would buy,” said Myint. “Now, we’re making just enough to keep the business going. It’s tough.”
Prior to opening Best Choice Foods in 1989, Myint’s father owned a small, successful biscuit shop in Myanmar. Myint said running a business in New York City is more taxing.
“It’s much more complicated in the U.S.,” said Myint. “More competition.”
The couple manages every aspect of the business, which employs seven people working as cashiers and stockers. From 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, the couple serves customers from opposite counters at the front of the grocery store, warmly greeting the constant flow of customers in different Asian dialects, and speaking in Burmese when customers aren’t present.
The pressures on the business are severe. The 2008 opening of Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester St. has lured away shoppers from Best Choice Foods and other area grocers. Best Choice Foods’ closest competition, One Long Hing Market, is located only 20 yards away.
Chui Ping Yan Ng, who has lived in Manhattan for 35 years, said she prefers One Long Hing Market to others.
“Every day after work, I pick up fruit from here. It’s on my way home,” said Ng. “Sometimes I will pick up fruit from other places if the prices are good. But, here, it’s fresher.”
Every shelf, counter, and corner of Best Choice Foods is packed with goods. The narrow, rectangular store holds an inventory of over 2,000 products- a mix of neat piles of 10 different brands of rice, hanging packages of fried, seasoned poultry skins, and a section full of pickled fruits and vegetables, among others. To differentiate themselves from other grocers, Myint and Khin said they constantly study consumer behavior within their store by paying close attention to the items purchased by customers and to the items that remain unsold. After analysis, the couple then adjusts their prices, sometimes daily, to appeal to customers. According to Khin, unsold items indicate that other grocers are selling at cheaper prices.
“Price is important to our shoppers,” said Khin. “We have many people who bargain the price because they see it cheaper somewhere else. Sometimes the difference is pennies. We say ‘okay’ and sell it.”
But the effects of the tough economy have made it difficult for the owners to remain competitive. According to the New York City Police Department, reported thefts in Chinatown have increased by 20.5-percent since 2010. Myint said that every year, he has lost approximately 10-percent of revenue from stolen goods. As prevention, he installed a 42-inch Panasonic television screen at the entrance, which monitors every corner of the store.
“It’s easy for people to steal because our store is small and items are small, too,” said Myint. “The security system is to put fear in stealing from our store. But, not all our shoppers are like this.”
Despite this, many of the customers at Best Choice Foods come often. Jane Zheng, who has been living in Manhattan with her son and family for three months, has become a regular. She said she comes for the variety of products sold at Best Choice Foods.
“I end up buying all my groceries here,” said Zheng, while holding her baby Ethan. “The owners are easy-going, too.”
Other shoppers come for the experience. John Wilson, a Manhattan resident, comes once a week to buy special curries and chilies at the market.
“The owner is really nice and sweet. One time she gave me a free soda,” he said. “I love coming here.”
For owners Myint and Khin, keeping customers satisfied is enough to keep them going.
“We know it’s difficult times for our customers, too,” said Khin. “If they leave happy, they will come again.”