Rural grocers see end on horizon

A University Extension survey found more than half of rural grocery vendors plan to own their store for a decade or less.

by David Minor

As discount box stores continue to pop up across Minnesota, some rural grocers in the state are having difficulty remaining open.
Grocers in less-populated portions of Minnesota face competition from other stores, high operating costs and narrow profit margins, according to a recent University of Minnesota survey. Most rural grocery store owners surveyed said they expect to own their stores for 10 years or fewer.
And as stores close, citizens in small towns need to travel — sometimes more than 50 miles — to buy groceries. 
“The grocery store is the cornerstone of the community,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, which worked with the study’s authors by encouraging members to participate in the survey. “[We’re] always disappointed when that grocer does end up closing.”
For Aurora, Minn., a community of almost 1,700 people, the recent closure of its lone grocery store means residents must travel to other towns to buy foods. 
Mary Hess, Aurora’s mayor, said that can be difficult for many of the community’s residents because many are elderly, and the city lacks public transportation.
“I am actually giving my neighbor a ride to the grocery store when she needs,” she said.
University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and the Minnesota Center for Survey Research conducted the survey in 2015 and released the findings in February. The group mailed surveys to grocery stores in Minnesota communities with a population of less than 2,500.
Karen Lanthier, RSDP assistant program director of sustainable local foods and one of the survey’s co-authors, said she was astounded by the 69 percent response rate.
She said the high rate indicated that the survey touched on a problem independent grocers wanted people to know about.
“We are learning about a variety of different issues,” she said. “The best thing we can do is to stop in the small town grocery stores.”
Lanthier said the group will release more reports as researchers analyze the rest of the data from the survey.
Chuck Welte, owner of Pine River Family Market, in Pine River, Minn., said he is coming up against tough competition from large chain grocery stores like Costco and Aldi. 
Still, the biggest challenge right now, he said, is a Dollar General that opened across the street from his store. 
“They are putting them everywhere in these small towns,” Welte said.
Locally owned grocery stores’ neighborhood involvement helps to keep smaller communities going, said Phil Stotesbery, owner of Larry’s Super Market in Pelican Rapids, Minn.
“You don’t see [big-box discount stores] supporting the community,” he said. “The money goes out of the community, and you rarely see that come back.”
The competition isn’t necessarily nearby, either. The survey found that for 61 percent of small grocers, the nearest discount grocery was 20 miles or farther away.
In greater Minnesota, 40 percent of people travel at least 10 minutes to shop at a grocery store, according to a 2015 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota survey. That same study found that 49 percent of people reported that there were no nearby stores that sold healthy food. 
To address concerns over access to food, the Minnesota Department of Health established the Minnesota Food Charter in 2014. The department created the program to guide community leaders and policy makers in providing access to healthy and affordable food.
State lawmakers have also introduced legislation this legislative session that would create a statewide program to increase access to healthy and affordable food options.