Attracting a grocery store to a rural small town

by Lois Deleeuw
(Hull 51239)

Visitor Question: How do we attract a grocery store to our town?

Editors Reply: Thank you for giving your zip code, which allowed us to see that you are a small town in northwest Iowa, amidst what we can assume is a rural area an hour or so out of Sioux Falls. That gives us a picture that enables us to provide a different and additional answer than a somewhat more urban-focused article about getting a grocery store. You should read that one too.

In the earlier reply to a question, we suggested that rural areas try to talk whatever businesses they have, such as a gas station or tavern, into carrying some of the more commonly needed food items, the proverbial bread and milk.

Now let's take a different tack that's more responsive to your question, Lois. First, we suggest making inquiries to the state government's economic development and agriculture departments to see what resources they can offer. The reason we suggest starting there is that sometimes state offices can be surprisingly helpful, but even if they are difficult to reach and deal with, at least you know that up front.

If they are somewhat helpful in a limited way, which is most often the case, they may at least give you some perspective about what is happening statewide. Often people in such offices become fairly cynical and pessimistic about projects they see as long shots, which might be the case for your town. But pay attention to the source of their negativity, because it will be a cautionary tale to you about what might happen if you take an ordinary and expected approach to this project of attracting a grocery store.

If the state offices are helpful beyond what you were expecting, by all means take advantage of any resources they share and of their knowledge and contacts.

Now let's talk about what to do when you have gone as far as you can in following any road maps that state offices provide you. Let's assume that you are going to have to figure out how to make a case for yourselves that goes well beyond what every ordinary small town in a rural area might do. We hope we are wrong and that you are happily writing to us in a year about your grocery store, but if not, you will have to build your own campaign to show prospective grocery store owners that you are a cut above all the other towns that want stores.

If you have to take this do-it-yourself route, begin with building a team. Use your contacts to identify some people who also are passionate about the grocery store issue. Then start enlisting your town leaders, which would be your elected officials, school superintendent, business owners, and congregational leaders. If you don't have some or many of these people on board, pause to keep building up your team with prominent people who can communicate well.

Once you have a good beginning of a team, start with a sharp look at the market you could provide to the grocery store, meaning the population of your town and the ages of that population, your relative prosperity (or lack of it), and the population of your surrounding areas that also are not served by a good grocery store.

Find out where these people are buying groceries right now. Are they going to the big box store in Sioux Falls, grocery stores there, shopping online for non-perishable food items, or going to another smaller town in your vicinity? Are they growing and preserving their own vegetables and fruits, and buying meat from local farmers? Are they going without fresh foods altogether? Be as systematic about collecting this information as you can be. Maybe your town's government, or the relevant companies, would help you design a survey to go out with utility bills.

Are there any unique items that your town would be especially excited about buying? Is there a ridiculously popular soccer team or school? My local grocery store sells locally-themed T-shirts (which incidentally have higher profit margins than bread and milk).

Do you have any existing buildings that could be converted into a grocery store? Was there formerly a grocery store? If so, when did it die and what has happened to its building? If there is no suitable building, what about available land in a location with good street or road access?

Now you have some information that would be useful to a prospective grocery store tenant.

We suggest a direct approach. None of us who write for this website live in Iowa, but two of us have lived near Iowa at some point in our lives. From a distance it looks like there is one dominant grocery store chain in your state. Find out where they have a corporate office and try to make an appointment to go there with a team of three to five of you. Using the information you have collected, make your best pitch. If they say no right on the spot, be sure to understand why they think it is impractical to place a grocery store in your town.

Also don't give up if they say no. Send a follow-up letter including references to any good publicity your town has received recently and repeating your enthusiasm. Send them some positive news about every six months.

In the meantime, continue to press your state's economic development office and your two excellent state universities for contacts of people who might want to be entrepreneurs in your town. Figure out what other businesses could be combined with a grocery store in your particular situation, and pitch that angle. See if the existing business persons might want to start a new business; it is not at all unusual for people to have more than one business once the first one becomes successful.

Lastly, but not last in importance, be sure to do everything you can to make your town attractive and prosperous. Get rid of your eyesore buildings or lots, concentrating on prominent streets first. Do some beautification projects, which can be as simple as flower boxes and community murals. If there is no farmer's market, start one on Friday night, Saturday, or even Sunday. Get the school kids to make art. Put in a bubbler fountain. Plan outdoor parties, movie nights, festivals, and parades.

Work on housing supply too. Are there some good-looking houses for the grocery store manager to rent or buy? Imagine that you already have been promised this store; now what will these employees need to have to be happy and want to stay?

These are some suggestions. You will find many resources on this website too; in fact, on the Sitemap page (on the menu), in the yellow box near the top, there is a Rural section that gives you a link to all of our pages that we see as specific to rural areas.

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