In Moundsville, West Virginia, a small town on the left bank of the Ohio River southwest of Pittsburgh, if you need a pair of shoes, you go to Ruttenberg’s. The cramped emporium — stocked toes-to-eyes with the necessities of rural American daily life like steel-toed work shoes, cowboy boots, hoodies, trucker hats, and jeans – has been a mainstay on Jefferson Avenue since 1930.
The shop has survived a great depression, a world war, and the decimation of Ohio River factories in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s seen other stores come and go. But few developments have rocked Rutenberg’s and its five full-time employees as much as the opening of a Walmart supercenter less than a mile away, on the road into town, in 2006.
And so Ilene Zinn, whose family has owned and operated Ruttenberg’s since its opening 92 years ago, has confronted the thorniest problem for small businesses in rural America: How do you compete against massive retailers like Walmart and Amazon that go to the ends of the earth to find the cheapest products and generally pay below-average wages?
Ruttenberg’s has been successful, so I drove to Moundsville to find out how they’ve managed to stay in business after Walmart arrive 16 years ago.
A Crucial Question
The question is crucial in 2022 because it lies at the core of the government’s ongoing battle to reverse the inequality that’s gotten worse over the last 40 years. But what’s striking about shopping at a place like Ruttenberg’s isn’t the prices. It’s how intimate it feels compared to wandering the cavernous aisles of Walmart or sitting alone and clicking through items on Amazon.
I had been talking to Zinn for about 20 minutes when I heard her greet a man walking into the store. “Oh, that’s Bailey,” she said. “He’s about to give part of his kidney to his sister. Bailey, how ya doing?”
The man confirmed Zinn’s information, elaborated on his sister’s condition, and added that he’d lost 70 pounds to help out his sister. For every person who walked in during the three hours I spent at the store, Zinn had a name and a story.
Whether this family-like atmosphere can survive in America’s hyper-efficient consumerist society is particularly sensitive in places like Moundsville, which has already lost a cluster of main street businesses and iconic factories like Marx Toys and Fostoria Glass. The population of around 8,000 is half the number of its heyday in the 1960s, when Cynthia Bissett, also known as the mother of Lady Gaga, was growing up here. When I visited to report this story, Dunkin’ Donuts had just announced it would open a store this spring, posing a new threat to the town’s donut maker, Quality Bake.
The Cost of Low Prices
By one important measure, shopping at Walmart has an advantage. It’s much cheaper. You can grab items off the shelf like Brahma Men’s Raid Steel Toe Work Boots, a decent-looking work boot made in China that cost around $25.
The low price is the dilemma for rural America because it has a cost. The opening of a Walmart reduces “county-level retail employment by about 150 workers,” according to a study in the Journal of Urban Economics, published two years after the Walmart opened in Moundsville. And now the rise of Amazon and other e-commerce giants means you can have low-cost goods delivered to your front door.
To be sure, Walmart, like Amazon, is often very popular for residents in rural America. And it can bring a range of goods and services that weren’t previously available. In many cases, including in Moundsville, the stores become community centers. “A joyful place, like home or church,” one resident of Winnsboro, North Carolina, called Walmart in a 2016 PBS report.
According to Bob Ortega’s book In Sam We Trust, Sam Walton came to see small towns as the key to his growth strategy because there was a massive pent-up demand for goods that seemed reserved for people in big cities. But part of that strategy, Ortega told me in an interview, was also “squeezing out competitors with lower prices.”
As he noted in his book, the result was a thrilling cornucopia for consumers: “By the early 1890s, Marshall Fields offered Chicago shoppers a choice of 6,000 items. By the 1990s, Walmart supercenters offered shoppers across North America some 70,000 items per store, including different sizes and styles of items.”
The formula works. In the 12 months that ended January 31, Walmart sales reached over $555 billion, according to the company’s latest financial statement.
Tyler Thomason, a spokesman for Walmart, declined to address the issue of small businesses that compete with Walmart, but sent me an email touting the company’s commitment to buying products from U.S. suppliers. “We have also recently committed $350 billion to products made, sold or assembled in the United States, which supports over 750,000 U.S. jobs,” he wrote.
Putting Down Roots
The story of Ruttenberg’s started in the first half of the 20th century. It was a family of Jewish merchants, traveling around Western Pennsylvania, Zinn told me. They would spend a few years in a town, doing business, and then move on.
“The only reason my family settled in Moundsville is because my grandfather died here,” she said. In a time of uncertainty, putting down roots made sense. And the town, built around a 2,200-year-old Native American burial mound, was thriving.
When the store opened in 1930, almost all the shoes sold were made in the U.S., including in Portsmouth, Ohio, a steamboat ride down the Ohio River, which had a booming shoe industry. In 1960, Ruttenberg’s opened a second location, in New Martinsville.
But change was coming. The expansion of free trade deals, the growth of manufacturing overseas, and cost-slashing technological innovation in the container-box shipping sector fueled a boom in the construction of so-called big box stores. The king of them was Walmart, which came to Moundsville in 2006.
“We were really scared,” said Zinn. “We had to really think about how we were going to survive. In the end, we realized we’d have to sell higher quality products, put a premium on service and also develop relationships with everybody in town.”
The store expanded its range of offerings, especially for stylish products favored by workers in the fracking industry, and fire-resistant gear, and big-and-tall options. It expanded its business selling online. At Ruttenberg’s, you’re more likely to pay $100 than $25 for a pair of work boots, but they’ll last longer, and that transaction will keep money in the community and feed a relationship with the family selling you the shoe.
Relationships Are Key
This playbook is increasingly popular for small businesses in rural America.
Relationships are key, said Patrick Lee of Chesapeake, a Maryland-based consultancy that assists small businesses. “If you do something special for a customer, that person never forgets it and becomes the biggest advertiser for your store,” he said.
“It’s important to have loyal customers who can amplify what you’re doing,” said Micki Maynard, author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman’s Built a Corner Deli into a Global Food Community, a new book about how Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI, has grown into a $75 million-a-year business by expanding within the city. Instead of franchising their store, companies like Zingerman’s expand by investing in coffee roasters, farmers and other suppliers. Stores like this are helping revive so-called satellite towns. “People have been so focused on big cities for so long, and now the pandemic makes them reconsider,” Maynard told me. “I’m interested in these hometown holdouts who decide to stay put instead of growing out.”
On a recent Saturday, Zinn was camped out in the shop with her daughter Mallory and her daughter’s boyfriend, Isaac.
One visitor rang up over $200 worth of shoes and pants. The man, a coal miner, said he loved Ruttenberg’s, “because I know the people here and they have everything I need.” On paydays, “I go to the bank around the corner, cash that paycheck and then come here,” he added.
Zinn has no plans to move. “I like living in Moundsville because it’s safe and you know everybody,” she said. Zinn loves her community, even though she thinks hers might be the only Jewish family left in Moundsville. (There are less than 2,000 Jews in West Virginia.)
I bought a pair of cowboy boots, made by a company in Pennsylvania with imported parts. The boots cost $184.99, which is more than I usually pay for shoes. But Zinn spent half-an-hour helping me find a pair that fit my annoyingly-wide feet. And then she invited me to stay and have a sandwich with her family.
John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based former Wall Street Journal reporter and co-director of the PBS film Moundsville.