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Extension > Source > Spring 2017 > A future for rural grocery stores

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A future for rural grocery stores

Woman looking into the freezer section at grocery storeOld grocery store front

Photo (right) by Elizabeth Flores. Copyright 2015, Star Tribune.


The rural grocery store is facing change. Big box competition is fierce. Customers shop in larger towns, and grocery store owners who have played a vital role in small-town life for decades are retiring.

Kathy Draeger, director of Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP), led RSDP to study the struggles. A survey that garnered responses from 175 grocers is helping RSDP consider what could help rural grocery stores thrive.

One finding is that owners want to pass the baton to a new generation. Sixty-three percent do not intend to own their store in 10 years, but a majority do not have transition plans. Kathy Schaff, director of Grow Minnesota! at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, says, “Urban, rural, large and small businesses all struggle with succession planning.”

New owners must master many skills. “I’m the bookkeeper. My wife and I do human resources. I’m the meat cutter and whatever else is needed,” says Allen Dahmen. He and his wife, Jill, own Pierz Foods.

Bruce Schwartau, Extension community economics program leader, has studied how businesses can co-exist with big box stores by specializing. Ryan Pesch, Extension community economics educator, coaches local producers and grocers to form partnerships. The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) offer resources on making energy-efficient lighting and equipment more affordable.

Dahmen recently joined RSDP at a conference at Kansas State University where rural, small-town grocers learned and swapped ideas. “It’s vital that communities have grocery stores,” he says. “They are a social anchor for a community.”

How can community members help?

  1. Decide that having a source for healthy food is important
  2. Plan an event at the grocery store with your local grocer
  3. Let store owners know your favorite items to purchase if they don't currently carry them
  4. Don't assume your local store is always more expensive
  5. Get to know your local grocer
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