For Christi Greaham, shopping in Powell, isn’t as easy as it might be in a bigger town. It can be hard to find shoes she likes, for example. She can’t run to the Walmart toy aisle 30 minutes before a birthday party she forgot about. And her daughter was out of luck when she remembered, at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, that she needed a yellow poster board for school in the morning.
“But we know what we sign up for when we live in a small town,” she said. “We’re willing to give up shoe shopping to not have to deal with traffic and to have our space and sense of community.”
Greaham’s comments came during a focus group held last month in Powell. She participated in one of several such conversations held in the Big Horn Basin in response to the announcement of Shopko closing its stores nationwide.
The focus groups were part of an effort by community leaders and the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, to help fill the gaps left by Shopko’s departure, like the lack of a pharmacy or a place to buy kids clothing and school supplies.
In addition, the focus groups were an early step in developing a long-term strategy to support a robust sense of community and entrepreneurship that will ultimately sustain small towns in the shifting retail environment nationwide.
“The people who live here need a place to buy their medications and their socks, and we’re working on addressing those needs and identifying other local opportunities to find those products,” said Amy Quick, the northwest regional director for the Wyoming Business Council. “However, once we’ve done what we can to meet those immediate needs, the real work will be creating a generalized strategy that can be used any time a large business closes in one of our small towns. A big part of that is helping to create a warm sense of community that makes shopping locally enjoyable and keeps residents from moving away to bigger cities.”
Medications, socks and school supplies
In many small towns across Wyoming, Shopko stores served as one of the only places to buy essentials like school supplies, socks, small appliances, kitchen supplies and last-minute birthday gifts. Often, Shopko was also the only pharmacy in town.
In March, Shopko announced it was shuttering its stores nationwide, which left many residents in 13 Wyoming communities wondering where they would go for those essentials.
In the Big Horn Basin alone, four Shopko stores have closed or will be closing soon; they are in Greybull, Powell, Worland and Thermopolis. The closure of those four stores in an area with such a low population creates a significant economic impact on the region, and the Small Business Development Center and local economic development agencies have been working to mitigate that impact.
“In a city with a Walmart or two and a handful of pharmacies, grocers and general stores, the closure of a Shopko might not be felt so strongly,” Quick said. “In a town like Greybull though, population of 1,847, it means residents may have to drive an hour or more to buy those essentials. It also means a significant loss of jobs, the loss of sales tax dollars and the loss of rent and utility payments from one of the larger retail spaces in town.”
Anticipating the impact of the Shopko closures in the Big Horn Basin, Quick called the National Main Street Center for its expertise specifically in retail economics. In partnership with community leaders in each of the four affected communities in her region, Quick arranged for Matt Wagner, vice president of revitalization programs for the National Main Street Center, to visit the region and help draft a plan to turn the Shopko closures into opportunities for growth and entrepreneurship.
Using the Big Horn Basin as a case study, that plan can then be tweaked and replicated in other areas of the state with similar retail struggles.
Wagner and Quick spent two days in Powell, Greybull, Worland and Thermopolis. They toured each community for a sense of the retail environments and held focus groups with local business owners and shoppers.
Some common themes developed in those focus groups.
First, many of the gaps left by Shopko’s departure were already being filled. In each community, solutions to the loss of the Shopko pharmacy had already been found, either by current businesses expanding or new ones opening.
Many other product categories shoppers said they would miss from Shopko – kids’ clothing, school supplies, toys, socks, underwear, sheets, towels, seasonal items and gardening supplies, to name a few – could be found at other places in town such as the Family Dollar, Ace Hardware and Bomgaars.
“People tend to shop by habit,” said Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership. “When they’ve bought their school supplies from one place for years and years, it can be a challenge to convince them to shop elsewhere.”
She and other economic developers in the area sought creative solutions to help form new shopping habits in their communities. She planned to coordinate a shopping trolley tour and other public awareness-raising activities in Powell to help shoppers discover products at various locations.
“We actually have more shopping options in Powell than many people realize,” Bekes said. “Personally, I didn’t even know the variety of dog toys I could buy at Murdoch’s until I toured there the other day. We can help change people’s habits.”
Some business owners in the focus groups shared their efforts to expand into product categories Shopko had covered. The owner of Powell Drug, for example, said he had available shelf space to add items like first aid and school supplies. The owner of Lisa Kunkel Photography in Greybull was considering broadening her product selection to sell items like flash drives and office supplies in her gallery.
Some business owners were also open to extending their hours to capture the late-night and weekend shoppers that frequented Shopko.
Seniors and those who work with seniors said the one-stop convenience of Shopko was important to them, as some seniors can’t drive all over town to do their shopping. Driving and delivery services were suggested as potential new business opportunities to fill that need.
“Although we never want to leave communities with unmet needs, sometimes those gaps create space for entrepreneurs to come in and find success,” said Amanda Moeller, the executive director of the Thermopolis-Hot Springs Economic Development Company.
Wagner and Quick have distributed an online survey to capture a wider perspective on the retail environment in northwest Wyoming. It is available here until May 10.
After gathering additional data and information during the next few weeks, Wagner expects to present a webinar in early June teaching other community leaders to replicate the strategies launched in the Big Horn Basin.
In small towns especially, local shops hire teenagers for their first jobs. They host the patios where residents gather and gossip. They sponsor the local little league teams and send flowers for funerals. In small towns, local shops are owned by friends and family members, and every single sale matters. The residents pay attention and care deeply about their local retailers.
“After a retail closure announcement like this, we often hear folks at coffee shops or throughout town talking about how their town is dying, even if five new shops just opened and a large manufacturer just moved to town,” said Quick. “The initial reaction is often very doom-and-gloom, but the reality in this situation particularly is actually quite encouraging in many of our communities.”
Even though the town is not dying, it’s an understandable fear, Quick said. Retail plays an enormous role in small towns. Stores provide jobs, sales tax income and convenience, and add to the town’s sense of community. It’s distressing when stores close.
“We need to be our community cheerleaders,” said LeAnn Baker, the executive director of the Washakie Development Association in Worland. “Worland is not dying. In fact, we’ve had more commercial investment here in the last three years than we have in the last 30.”
Indeed, while brick-and-mortar retail is certainly changing, it is not dying, Wagner emphasized.
“In general terms, nationally, traditional mom-and-pop retail is performing better than it has in many decades,” he said.
That’s because local shops offer something those big-box and online giants can’t: an experience.
Most of the focus group participants said they shopped online only as a last resort. Most preferred the customer service and sense of community they got from shopping locally, and they are willing to pay a bit more for that service.
“I shop online only when I have to,” said Greaham in Powell. “I want to support the community and those businesses that give back to us.”
These days, shoppers crave walkable downtowns with a variety of amenities like cafes, breweries and unique shops, Wagner said, and statistically they’re willing to pay a little more for that kind of shopping experience.
“When the Shopkos of the world fail, it’s not a reflection of the communities they are in,” Wagner explained. “It’s a reflection of national consumer trends. Those types of stores, while offering convenience and low prices, are being challenged by online competitors that can offer even lower prices and very quick shipping times.”
Focusing on walkable downtowns with a robust sense of community and a variety of amenities is “smart economic development in the 21st century,” Wagner said.
Right now, trying to fill product and service gaps created from Shopko’s departure is the immediate, short-term goal, Quick said. But in the end, her eye is on the bigger picture.
“We have to look at things from a wide angle,” she explained. “How do we help create that sense of community and service that keeps residents happy in their towns? How can we encourage entrepreneurial risk? How do we build up the workforce?”
Addressing those bigger, longer-term questions will be the second phase of Wagner’s proposal, in partnership with the Business Council.
A community’s best bet is to grow from within, Wagner said. It’s rare that large employers will move, and even more unusual they will move into small towns due to large labor-pool needs.
“Communities have to support their local entrepreneurs and their independent mom-and-pops, because that’s where consumers are going to go,” he said. “That’s where you put your economic energy. Experience, creativity, customer service – those are the keys for winning in retail."