Lucky Mart, on Chicago's South Side, sells almost nothing but lottery tickets.
Lucky Mart, on Chicago's South Side, sells almost nothing but lottery tickets. - 
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Years ago, under another name, the shop at 2900 West 87th Street, on Chicago’s South Side, was a convenience store that happened to sell lottery tickets. Then, Mr. Chan Park took over and turned it into Lucky Mart— a kind of Lottery Tickets ‘R’ Us. Park sold more than $5 million worth of tickets last year. 

Lucky Mart's tellers sit behind thick glass at the ticket windows. There are still Honey Buns and chips on the shelves, but nobody buys any—at least, not in the hour-and-change I spend here. The ticket machines, however, never stop ringing and buzzing.

Chan Park came to the U.S. from South Korea in 2001 and bought a laundromat. A few years later, he took over this store. 

However, with three big discount supermarkets right nearby, he knew he needed to reinvent the business. "I thought, I don’t have any competitive power for that kind of grocery," he says.

Not for groceries. But he knew the store had sold a $28 million lottery ticket, and that seemed worth building on. He re-branded as Lucky Mart. Park says he believes there’s something lucky about the location.

He doesn’t mention it, but the location has another advantage: This is a primarily African-American neighborhood. Research shows African-Americans play the lottery a lot more than other groups.

About ten minutes into our conversation, we’re interrupted by a visit from Park's sales rep from the Illinois lottery accompanied by three regional officials. They say they had no idea a reporter was coming. They're here for what's become an annual ritual: Awarding Park a plaque commemorating his success as the operator of the state lottery's top-grossing location. 

The officials agree that the store’s focus and location — explain that successAlso, customer service — in particular, a clerk named Becky Reidy, who has been selling lottery tickets here since before Mr. Park took over.

Frank Taylor, the Chicago area’s sales director, calls her the best he’s ever seen. "She’s super with the players," he says. "She knows all of our games, she knows all of our promotions. And she’s, like, really into the lottery."

To Reidy, I admit: I’ve never played the lottery.

"Don’t start," she says. "Bad habit!" 

She smiles— and laughs, a little nervously —but she seems to mean it. She says she doesn’t play anymore. I ask her if she feels a little funny about selling it. "Oh sure," she says. "I know the economy sucks. Money could go elsewhere."

One economist found that, when people buy lottery tickets, they’re often using money they would have spent on household necessities—like food

"I could never work in a casino," Reidy says. But here’s the thing: casinos are arguably less of a rip-off than the lottery. 

In Illinois, and around the country, about 60 percent of what lottery customers spend on tickets comes back as prize money. At slot machines, where casinos make the most money, it’s often more like 90 percent.

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Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann