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Struggling Rural Grocery Stores Get Coronavirus Bump, But Worry If It Will Last

Jan Dunn shops at White's Foodliner in St. John in this photo from 2019.
Jeff Tuttle
The Journal
Jan Dunn shops at White's Foodliner in St. John in this photo from 2019.

Rural grocery stores have struggled to survive in recent years, but they've suddenly gotten a boost from shoppers desperate for supplies during the coronavirus outbreak.

The past couple of decades have been tough on small, rural grocery stores that often struggle to keep doors open as locals forgo hometown stores for shopping sprees in larger stores in bigger towns.

That is until 5 p.m. on March 11, 2020, two days after a historic drop in the stock market, which would only fall further in the days to come.

Jordan White remembers exactly what happened then.

“There began a little bit of frenzy buying,” says White, the operations manager of the company that operatesWhite’s Foodliner stores in Kingman, Medicine Lodge,St. John, Phillipsburg and Scott City.

But at 5 p.m. on March 11, customers began flocking into White’s stores.

“Things got started. By Friday the 13th and that weekend, I am going to call it frenzy buying for toilet paper. It was all over the country, from store to store,” he said. “Our Kingman store had 17 pallets of toilet paper stored above our freezer and someone from Wichita posted about it on Facebook. Then, it was mass chaos. People were trying to get toilet paper and essentials. The following week was more like a steady Christmas week.”

It’s been an uptick in business ever since.

And it’s a story resonating across Kansas –and the nation.

“You are hearing about stores doing 300% more business,” White says. “Obviously, we are not seeing that, because it has bounced across the board, depending on the location. Some of our stores are up only 25% in business and some are 100%. It is different week by week. It is also a false sense of improved business, because you are selling at a lower margin. We don’t make a lot of money on canned food, toilet paper and diapers. So, while you may have a lot more sales in the rural independent grocery stores right now, they aren’t exactly profitable sales.”

Rial Carver, program manager for theCenter for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, said she’s hearing howlocal stores across the state are adapting during the pandemic. Some are closing their doors and offering only delivery and pickup services — such as the St. Paul Supermarket and Cecil K’s Hometown Market in Holton — to keep both their employees and customers safe.

“The reality that grocery stores are facing right now is that they are swamped – that’s something that is happening everywhere,” Carver says. “What I have seen is that some of these small-town grocers have a little bit of an edge because they are able to adapt quickly and implement new processes for ordering or for delivery. They also have closer ties to their community. And, some stores are working with volunteers to help make this new normal a reality.”

They’re getting a helping hand from their communities. Sheriff’s departments in Bourbon, Greenwood and Osage counties are offering grocery delivery to residents who shop at local stores.

Community groups in Trego County are partnering withMalay’s Market in WaKeeney to offer family food boxes. And some offer remote shopping by phone, email and Facebook Messenger, Carver said.

Stacie Schmidt, executive director ofEllsworth County Economic Development, saidGene’s Heartland Foods in her community started by offering curbside delivery and call-in orders to reduce foot traffic and keep the community and staff safe.

Fearing that it would be difficult to efficiently take phone orders, shop for people, stock shelves, clean and provide check-out services all at once, Ellsworth County Economic Development stepped in and worked with the store to launchGene’s Click List, which allows for online ordering.

Schmidt said the system is working well for customers and helping to keep staff healthy by reducing traffic in the store.

“This is a way of thinking adaptively to solve challenges (with technical solutions) and a great way of collaboration and partnerships,” Schmidt says.

It’s not unusual to see orders of $400 or more at G&W Foods in Iola during the crisis, store manager Daniel Gile says.
courtesy photo
It’s not unusual to see orders of $400 or more at G&W Foods in Iola during the crisis, store manager Daniel Gile says.

It’s a big moment for small-town stores, said Daniel Gile, store manager atG&W Foods in Iola.

“We have never seen anything like it,” Gile says. “It is just unprecedented. I assumed it would taper off at some point, and it has not. When the governor issued that stay-at-home order on March 28, that was by far the busiest day we had. There was a lot of panic and fear — just fear of the unknown and that people might be stuck at home and they didn’t have enough groceries.”

It is not unusual, Gile said, to have a customer or two come in and do a month’s worth of shopping. But in these COVID-19 days and times, “it is not uncommon to see $400 to $500 orders. We are seeing that repetitively.”

And some customers are driving 70 to 90 miles to shop, Gile said.

“I was told a couple came down from the Kansas City area because their grocery store had depleted their products, and they were reaching out to anybody so they could have something. A couple from Lawrence drove an hour and 20 minutes. A lot of them were coming to find toilet paper, and when they realized we didn’t have that, they ended up buying other things.

“Are people flocking because they don’t want to brave Walmart? I think so. You and I both know they are a discount store for a reason. They (Walmart) serve the masses, where we cater to customer service, fresh-cut meat and produce. … We just take care of the community no matter how it is.”

Marilyn Logan, general manager of theMarmaton Market in Moran, says a reluctance to take risks in the face of the coronavirus prompted the store to offer curbside pickup and home delivery.

Even so, customers are driving in from Bourbon, Neosho and Anderson counties to shop.

“People are tending to buy more products as staple items — they are wanting flour, sugar and macaroni — less of the snack cakes. And yeast? We are out of yeast and have had trouble getting flour. We had some in stock, but that could change any minute,” she said.

“Our store has gone up 20% in business, and we are hoping we have opened up people’s eyes to continue to shop here when this is all over with.”

But some store owners are saying they are bracing for when the pandemic ends.

“I think the other side of the wave will show a decrease in sales,” Jordan White said. “That’s what we are preparing for, and we will be ready for it.

“People aren’t going to need to buy a lot of toilet paper or canned goods for the next three months because I think everybody should have plenty … but we will keep fighting, keep going and doing what we do.”

Chris Green, managing editor of The Journal, contributed to this story.

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive twice-a-week updates, subscribe here.

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