For rural grocery stores, the pandemic is personal

Grocery delivery is nothing new, and it certainly has become much more common since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. But for stores like Michigan Hometown Foods,  which is  the lone grocery in a North Dakota town of 275 people, the process looks a lot different than it does in a larger city, as Stephanie Parker reports in FERN latest story.

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 Arliss Spillane, the store’s former owner and longtime manager.

“New methods of ordering are just one way rural grocers are adapting to the pandemic,” Parker writes. “As with their big-city counterparts, there’s also the need to arrange curbside pickup, manage increased home delivery, and deal with the reality of face masks and a recent spike in meat prices after processing plants were temporarily closed by Covid-19 outbreaks.

“But for Spillane, there’s the additional stress of trying to protect her employees and customers, who also are her friends and neighbors. She oversees six employees, two of whom are part-time. So far, all have avoided contracting the virus. When her meat cutter wasn’t feeling well, she sent him to get tested (he was negative).

“I’m just mentally and physically drained,” she says.

“Rural grocery stores across the country have been struggling for years. They face competition from Walmart and other box stores, as well as from an influx of dollar stores, like Dollar General, that undercut grocers on price.

“So far, the coronavirus has actually boosted business for many rural stores. A survey done last month 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.

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