Will Covid-19 Rejuvenate Independent Small Grocery Stores?

The Lempert Report
August 17, 2020

We have talked a lot about how during the pandemic online ordering has skyrocketed – whether for delivery or curbside pick ups.

The Food and Environment Reporting Network had a great story about Dan Reineke, who while he was in quarantine waiting for the result of his Covid-19 test, he had his groceries delivered to his home.

His local grocery store — Michigan Hometown Foods — doesn’t have an online ordering system, though, so he wrote down a list of what he wanted, snapped a photo with his phone, and sent it as a text message to the store’s manager, Arliss Spillane.

“I was as explicit as I could be,” Reineke says about his list. “I generally tend to buy things without paying attention, so I tried to pay attention for Arliss.”

Reineke, an emergency medical technician who lives in Michigan, North Dakota, quarantined after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Reineke tested negative, but he felt fortunate that Spillane and her crew were able to bring him groceries. Spillane started a tab for Reineke, because he only pays in cash, and he settled up once he was able to return to the store in person.

Michigan Hometown Foods, which is the only grocery in a town of 275 people, the process for online ordering looks a lot different than it does in a larger cities. Instead of scrolling through photos and detailed descriptions and adding items to an online cart, Hometown Foods shoppers order by text or Facebook — or simply pick up the phone and call Spillane. She keeps the store’s Facebook page current with new arrivals, deals, and lots of photos.

Spillane takes the challenge of safeguarding health personally. She owned Michigan Hometown Foods from 2009 until 2017, when she got sick with an unknown illness that caused her to have convulsions. Unable to work, as doctors tried for months to diagnose the problem, Spillane was forced to sell the store. The next owner wasn’t able to keep it open, so in 2018 the county bought it to ensure the town kept its grocery store. By then Michigan’s hometown doctor, “Doc” Hagen, had figured out that Spillane’s convulsions were caused by an infection and treated her with an antibiotic, so she came back to manage the store.

Spillane takes the pandemic seriously. On a table just inside the front doors there is hand sanitizer, cloth masks made by a local volunteer, and a sign asking people to keep their masks, wash and reuse them. When shoppers leave the store, their carts are quickly sanitized.

Rural grocery stores across the country have been struggling for years.    

But so far, the coronavirus has actually boosted business for many rural stores. A survey done in May by the North Dakota Rural Grocery Initiative found that nearly all 49 stores surveyed have seen sales rise since the beginning of the pandemic, some by as much as 100 percent.

Michigan Hometown Foods has experienced this coronavirus  boost. “We went from doing average sales of about $1,800 a day to $2,700 a day,” says Spillane.

According to Reineke, people from the larger cities “were coming into Michigan to stay away from the crowds.” In something of a role reversal, smaller stores often had items — like flour, eggs, and toilet paper — that the bigger stores did not.

There is hope that at least some of these customers will continue shopping at Michigan’s store once the pandemic subsides.