In rural communities around the country, independent grocery stores are at risk. Retiring grocery store owners are struggling to find buyers, while low prices at big box convenience stores add increased pressure to already slim profit margins.
In rural Kansas alone, 105 grocery stores shuttered from 2008-18. More than half of those communities are still waiting for a store to reopen, according to data from the Rural Grocery Initiative, a program established by Kansas State University to improve access to healthy foods in rural areas.
“There are communities that are having to travel a large distance to get food access if their store closes, and that can have an effect on the community in terms of its quality of life, the people they are going to keep in that town and the people they are going to attract to that town,” said Rial Carver, program manager for the Rural Grocery Initiative and Kansas Healthy Food Initiative. “It just has an effect on the long-term vibrancy and viability of that town,” she added.
As a guest on the Rural Business podcast, Carver spoke to the importance of grocery stores in small, rural communities, where the next shop with fresh food may be more than 10 miles away. Rural grocery stores not only provide access to affordable, healthy food, but they also serve as anchor businesses and hubs for social connection. Losing a store means losing a critical piece of the local economy and culture.
The good news is a grocery store closure doesn’t have to be the end of the story, according to Carver. “It just means that the community needs to think about what role the store plays … and how can that store adapt to the current needs of the community and put its best foot forward in order to serve that community for years to come,” she said.
When the traditional business model isn’t cutting it, many communities have turned to alternatives to help close the grocery gap. This includes city-owned stores, cooperatives, public-private partnerships and nonprofits. Some communities have found even more innovative — and at times, unexpected — solutions.
For example, the Leon, Kansas, school district runs the local grocery store, while using it as a vehicle for education. In entrepreneurship classes held at the store, students learn how to stock the shelves, manage inventory and finance loans. Even the food in the coolers is the product of an educational opportunity. Students in the district’s agricultural program learn to care for livestock, and in turn, sell the meat and eggs in the store. “It’s a closed loop system that has educational opportunities, plus it provides a touchpoint in the community between the school district, which is a key player in that community, and the residents,” Carver said.
In fact, a big part of opening a sustainable rural grocery business today is embedding it into the fabric of the community. Carver gave the example of Mildred Store, a grocery in Mildred, Kansas, a town with fewer than 50 residents. For nearly 100 years, the store operated as a family business, passed down through generations. Then in 2014, the store closed its doors and left a critical gap in the local community. To fill the gap, new owners took over and launched a monthly music night in an adjacent venue to help sustain the business. Mildred Store sells food at the events, which now draw hundreds of people from the surrounding area. With this simple, unique solution, the store becomes a destination for a much larger customer base.
“What we’re seeing is that when a traditional grocery store has left a community, that may not mean the same exact store should reopen,” Carver said. Store owners should consider what a store can offer to fill an unmet need in the community and attract customers beyond weekly grocery trips.
What to do if your grocery store is at risk
For rural communities facing a grocery store closure, the best solution is a proactive one, according to Carver. If a store owner is planning to retire, the community should consider the transition in advance to avoid downtime. It can be helpful to form a task force and use the transition as an opportunity to reevaluate how well the store is serving the current needs of the community in terms of location, size and amenities. Most importantly, communities should approach the issue with an open mind — the new face of rural grocery may not look like traditional stores of the past.
The Rural Grocery Initiative also offers additional resources, including success stories, toolkits, webinars, and step-by-step guides on its website: ruralgrocery.org.