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Pa. retailers fear effects of government shutdown

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Supermarket shopping habits could swing significantly in the coming weeks, especially among those who depend on food assistance programs, if the partial shutdown of the federal government continues.

The leader of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, a statewide trade group for supermarkets and convenience store, said retailers are growing concerned about store inventory and staffing if the government stalemate over border-wall funding persists.

"We haven't seen any problems yet, but it's only a matter of time until it impacts Pa.," Alex Baloga, CEO of the association, said Thursday.

As the shutdown carries into its fourth week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently decided that it will distribute February food stamp benefits in late January rather than early February. The goal is to ensure that SNAP recipients continue to get the financial help they need. SNAP stands the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name of the program.

More than 1.8 million Pennsylvania residents receive SNAP benefits, including 336,000 people in Central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley, according to the latest state data available. That includes Berks, Carbon, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Northampton and York counties.

Baloga said the concern among his members is that recipients could use their food stamps earlier than normal and that could put a strain on store inventory.

Retailers could see January sales jump up higher than normal, while February foot traffic might be slower, he said. "If you're in an area with more SNAP recipients, you might not be prepared to take the influx earlier."

It's unclear how March benefits may be impacted by the shutdown, which could put added pressure on local food banks and soup kitchens to help those waiting on a new round of food stamps.

Some retailers also are looking to renew their licenses to accept SNAP, he said, but the federal agencies are closed.

Food stamp recipients are not the only customers. Furloughed federal workers and others working without pay during the shutdown also are expected to adjust their shopping habits until the government is back up and running.

Baloga said the wider impact on retail remains unclear.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin and Cumberland counties. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal.

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