My job is to know small towns, so a couple of years ago I decided to visit every one of the 627 incorporated cities in Kansas — to research and write the Kansas Guidebook for Explorers. My main mission was to find places the public would find intriguing and worth visiting. But I also came across problems, issues that were common from town to town. One of the most pressing was the plight of local grocery stores.
First, you have to know this. For the grocery wholesale truck to even stop at a store, the store must buy $10,000 worth of inventory a week. A week! If the store purchases less, the owners have to pay a penalty or, more typically, the truck won’t even stop.
In Kansas, even though 72% of the cities have populations of 1,500 or less, it gets harder and harder to find towns this size with a grocery store. Still, I learned about amazing efforts storeowners are making to keep groceries open. In the northwest corner of the state, about six stores go together on one order. The community-owned store in Gove, pop. 95, receives the order and then has to distribute the inventory to all the other groceries. Not easy.
In other places, one grocer might have two or more stores and be able to spread the inventory around. Until recently, Will Carpenter owned stores in Potwin, pop. 438, Towanda, pop. 1,355, and Florence, pop. 650. Jim Puff helps move his grocery store inventory by having a thriving catering service and a popular restaurant called Puffy’s Steakhouse in the city of Maple Hill, pop. 492. The store in nearby Alma, pop. 764, orders through him, also.
In Howard, pop. 764, the grocery store closed so the owner of the drug store and old-fashioned soda fountain, Julie Perkins, took steps to add a grocery store to her operation. In Robinson (pop. 199), Kiowa (pop. 965), and Palco (pop. 228) the local grocery is community owned. Judy Olson, owner of Circleville Market, is trying to keep the local store open for a town of 185. All these efforts are remarkable.
Many of the small grocers say that their biggest downfall is competition with super stores. We can call it natural to shop where you think prices are lower (not always true), but we have to make it natural to support the local store.
Kansas State’s Center for Engagement and Community Development, having adopted the rural grocery store issue as a project, did an extensive survey and then organized the Rural Grocery Store Summit. The meeting took place in early June at the Kansas Sampler Foundation office near Inman. Over 100 people registered for the meeting, grocery store owners, representatives of cities that had lost a store, distributors, and rural advocacy agencies. It was an energetic meeting. Many of these owners had thought they were alone with their problems but found out that others were dealing with the same challenges.
Two of the main issues were distribution and customer loyalty. Citizens of a small town find it very inconvenient if they don’t have a store. Many will run to the local store for milk and bread yet buy the majority of their groceries at a super center. That trend must reverse for small town grocery stores to survive. If more customers buy more of their grocery purchases at the local store, smaller stores will be more able to meet minimum expenses and have more ordering flexibility; with profits, local stores can upgrade equipment. And as a consequence, small town residents will have a better store. It’s a partnership; both owners and shoppers must put out their best effort. To succeed, a small store must be clean, efficient, and community-minded. Locals residents must support it.
The small grocers’ other common problems include regulations, utility costs, taxes, and equipment repair costs. At the recent meeting, grocery store owners formed a steering commttee to concentrate on how best to address these issues. To learn more about what the Center for Engagement and Community Development is doing, go to www.ruralgrocery.org. Sign up for the grocer’s forum.
The grocery store is a primary business in a small town. We all need to support these places as a primary civic concern. We need the basics ““ bread, milk, and a whole grocery store.
Marci Penner directs the Kansas Sampler Foundation.