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Struggling Rural Grocers See Business Boost During Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

Rural areas have been losing mom and pop grocery stores for years. Big stores like Walmart and Target came in and put them out of business. But since the start of the pandemic, some independent grocers have seen things turn around. Here's Dana Cronin from Illinois Public Media.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: In the past three months, Great Scott! Community Market has seen more business than ever before.

SUE COONROD: When it hit, it was chaos. And still, we're very much more busy than we used to be.

CRONIN: Sue Coonrod is the manager of this small, community-run market in what was once a shoe store in downtown Winchester, Ill. Great Scott! has seen its business nearly double as people choose to shop closer to home and avoid more crowded stores in urban areas, people like Winchester resident Robin Lyons, who might otherwise shop at the Walmart in Jacksonville about 20 minutes away.

ROBIN LYONS: This is the time because these are our neighbors and our fellow townspeople. And we've got to shop local.

COONROD: Well, I haven't been in Walmart or some of the others for various reasons. But I've heard their shelves are much emptier than ours have been. Our shelves have not been empty.

CRONIN: Store manager Sue Coonrod is proud that her market has hardly had an empty shelf since the start of the pandemic despite the surge in customers.

COONROD: The influx of people means that you have to order more supplies. And then when supplies started becoming more and more scarce - and there is still some things we're not able to get - you have to search for ways around it.

CRONIN: That figure-it-out mode is popular at smaller grocery stores that have a much more flexible supply chain than their big box competitors. Dale Rogers, who teaches supply chain management at Arizona State University, likes to use an analogy between a small group of fighters and an army.

DALE ROGERS: And they take advantage where they can. And they're agile and very resilient. And, you know, with a big army, you have to do things in a certain way. And it's really kind of the same principle.

CRONIN: For example, when Great Scott! Community Market couldn't source flour from its usual supplier, managers called up a restaurant supplier, purchased flour in bulk, repackaged it into Ziploc bags and sold it off their shelves. In Superior, Neb., Shannon McCord owns Ideal Market. Once meat-packing plants began to close due to high rates of COVID-19, McCord launched a plan to localize his supply chain by pairing area hog farmers with local butchers to keep his meat case stocked.

SHANNON MCCORD: This is going to be local meat processed by local people, putting money back into our local economy and putting on our local's tables. It's all about local.

CRONIN: In normal times, independence from manufacturers often puts smaller grocers at a disadvantage. They mostly fall to the bottom of the supply chain. And if something's in short supply, they'll be the last to get it. That's why rural grocery store owners like Shannon McCord have had to be savvy to keep their shelves stocked throughout the pandemic.

MCCORD: All rules of thumb are out the window now. You've got to be - have enough foresight to know the right choice to make, because you can't say - well, what did we do last year? - because this - last year is not relevant anymore.

CRONIN: If they want their businesses to survive, small, independent grocers like McCord will likely have to stay nimble and continue to make the right choices even after they again slide back down the supply chain. For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "NOCTURNE")

KING: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, which is a Midwest reporting collaborative that's focused on food and agriculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "NOCTURNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.