Beth Martin is on a mission

The 45-year-old Atlanta grandmother doesn't waste time shopping. “I don't browse and I only go to the store when I need something,” she says.

Beth, who works part-time as a cashier, takes care of her granddaughters while her daughter, a single mom, works night shifts at a nursing home. Beth, her daughter, and the two elementary school girls share a two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta's upscale Sandy Springs neighborhood. “We're willing to live in a small space for high rent if it means the girls have a good school and we're not afraid to go out after dark,” Beth says.

While Sandy Springs occupies one of Atlanta's wealthiest zip codes — with an average new home price of $300,000 — it also includes a number of lower-income families like Beth's, who are trying to make a better life for their kids.

That makes people like Beth tactical shoppers, a breed that may be growing in this weak economy. On a Sunday afternoon, I followed Beth as she went in search of deals. The objective: Purchase an end table and new freshwater fish for the family aquarium. The destination: Exchange at Hammond, a 161,000-square-foot community center on busy Roswell Road.

For years, Hammond had been an eyesore, anchored by an unsuccessful Burlington Coat Factory. Most of its inline tenants were down at the heels. But when Burlington closed, owner Mimms Enterprises brought in Whole Foods and spent $1 million spiffing up the center's exterior.

Beth isn't interested in Whole Foods. Her groceries come from a Super Kroger, where prices are lower, or downtown where she can get soul food staples such as chitterlings. She appreciates the center's new look and says the new Ross Dress For Less is an improvement over Burlington.

Entering the store, she heads for home décor. Several associates greet us and offer assistance, but Beth doesn't need any help. She selects the cheapest occasional table ($18) she can find, then carries it to the cash stand. The store only has one register open, and Beth eyes her watch as the transaction in front of us drags on. Just as Beth starts to lose her patience, an employee hustles up from the back of the store to open another register.

Next stop — Petco. An associate helps us choose a few new fish, warning Beth away from species that might eat the fish she already has. We're soon on our way, with two bala sharks. On a whim, Beth decides to go to Dollar Tree for some household items. “You can get cleaning supplies for dirt cheap,” she says. “It's not name brand, but it works.”

The store's crowded aisles are brimming with customers. “Do you have any bug spray?” she asks a store manager. The manager gives her a blank look, so Beth finds her own way to the housecleaning section. There, she encounters a sales associate and asks again. “No English,” the clerk replies. After saying “cucaracha” and miming stomping on a cockroach, Beth searches the shelves herself. She can't find any bug spray, but does end up spending about $5 on spices, detergent and hand soap. “I see how they keep prices down,” Beth sighs as she waits in line.

For Beth, time is money — her mission was completed in 25 minutes.

Vitals

Location: Atlanta
Size: 161,000 sq. ft.
Opened: 1971
Redeveloped: February 2003
Anchors: Whole Foods, Petco, Ross Dress For Less, Office Depot
Parking spaces: 950