What’s in store for rural groceries

Customers flock to rural grocery stores and markets during coronavirus pandemic.

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April 20, 2020 - 10:15 AM

Customers have flocked to rural grocery stores like the Marmaton Market during the pandemic. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

MORAN — Even in turbulent times, Marilyn Logan finds a reason to smile.

“If I come in to work and it smells like bleach, then I’m happy,” she laughed.

Logan manages Marmaton Market, Moran’s only grocery store.

The aroma, she notes, is proof her employees have properly cleaned and disinfected the store’s shelves, carts and other hard surfaces, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s also other room for optimism.

The stay-at-home order is causing more to shop local, benefiting the small markets.

Customers show support.Photo by Richard Luken

“But it’s a double-edged sword,” Logan explained. 

She estimates her sales have increased 20% over the past month — when the pandemic began shuttering businesses across the country — but those higher profits are being eaten up by higher costs.

“We’re paying more for products,” Logan said. “And we’re having to search out other vendors for products. It’s been difficult getting meat and a lot of the other staples, like flour and macaroni. Every week they tell me, ‘Don’t even try to order these things.’”

The longer manufacturing facilities remain closed, the products will be harder to obtain Logan predicted.

Logan suspects business at the Marmaton Market has increased because the big chain stores like Walmart have had tougher times keeping some grocery items in stock. 

Her aim is to keep those customers coming back.

“We’re trying very hard to open up people’s eyes to what we have here, and they don’t always have to go to Iola or Chanute,” said Logan, who has managed the Moran grocery store since January, and was a part of the Marmaton Market board of directors for a year prior to that.

“We’ve gotten a few new regulars,” she continued. “We’ve gotten a lot of people from the western half of Bourbon County, some from Uniontown and Stark.”

The store is taking other steps to further connect with the community. Because the Moran Senior/Community Center is closed during the pandemic, the Marmaton Market has become the monthly food distribution point. The next food giveaway is May 1.

She’s also implemented curbside pickup and food delivery services for at-risk customers.

A local group has donated funds to the market so the delivery service can be offered free of charge.

“We’re very grateful for that,” Logan said.

MARMATON MARKET is not being uniquely affected.

The Kansas Leadership Center recently posted an article about rural grocery stores that have seen a swell of business.

“The reality that grocery stores are facing right now is that they are swamped — that’s something that is happening everywhere,” Rial Carver, program manager for the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, told KLC. “What I have seen is that some of these small-town grocers have a little bit of an edge because they are able to adapt quickly and implement new processes for ordering or for delivery. They also have closer ties to their community. And, some stores are working with volunteers to help make this new normal a reality.”

“IT’S A BIG moment for small-town stores, Daniel Gile, store manager at Iola’s G&W Foods, told the Leadership Center. 

“We have never seen anything like it,” Gile said. “It is just unprecedented. I assumed it would taper off at some point, and it has not. When the governor issued that stay-at-home order on March 28, that was by far the busiest day we had. There was a lot of panic and fear – just fear of the unknown and that people might be stuck at home and they didn’t have enough groceries.”

It is not unusual, Gile said, to have a customer or two come in and do a month’s worth of shopping. But in these times of COVID-19, “it is not uncommon to see $400 to $500 orders. We are seeing that repetitively.”

And some customers are driving 70 to 90 miles to shop, Gile said.

“Are people flocking because they don’t want to brave Walmart? I think so. You and I both know they are a discount store for a reason. They (Walmart) serve the masses, where we cater to customer service, fresh cut meat and produce. … We just take care of the community no matter how it is.”

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