The community of Fairfield, Alabama is already wondering how residents will manage to access food and healthcare products when its main grocery store closes. With the median income of Fairfield hovering around $34,400, added to the fact that 15% of residents are over 65 and living alone, the 10-minute drive to the closest grocery and retail center is more difficult than most Americans would think.
The town of Winnsboro, South Carolina is going through the exact same problem.
Residents of Oriental, North Carolina already have to make a 50-minute trek just for groceries and prescriptions because the town’s main retail store drove out local businesses within two years of setting up shop — and then abruptly decided to close its doors.
These situations aren’t isolated; they’re occurring all over the country in dozens of communities where residents tend to be living at or below the poverty line, and where a high percentage of residents are elderly seniors living alone.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. owns all of the retail stores referenced above. Officials announced on Jan. 15 that the big box monolith would be closing 269 of its locations, including 154 stores in the U.S. Some locations already began their close-out sales before 2015 ended; others are just starting to let customers know that they’ll have to find a new place to shop.
As the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg Business reported, the retail giant made a habit out of moving into vulnerable towns and driving local businesses into the ground. In Oriental, for example, the town’s main grocery store had been an important establishment in the community for 44 years; it took just over a year for a new Wal-Mart location to force the mom-and-pop shop out of business.
Offering products at rock-bottom prices and advertising hundreds of new jobs, Wal-Mart stores tend to be a welcome sight in rural, small towns at first. These stores provide everything from electronics to groceries, and many even have their own pharmacies.
Small towns often know that these chain stores aren’t good for their local economies, but it’s hard to fight back when the opportunities of a big box store seem so magnetic on paper.
Residents certainly don’t blame their local stores for shutting their doors after a Wal-Mart moves into town, but it’s only when that Wal-Mart also closes that people realize just how important those small businesses were. An independent pharmacy, for example, can usually accommodate the needs of elderly house-bound residents better than a big box store can.
Mike Gross, VP of Sales and Marketing at Retail Management Solutions, noted, “As a long time supporter of independent pharmacies, we feel very strongly about what is taking place in these rural areas that won’t have a local resource for prescription filling and pharmacist guidance. Pharmacies, more than ever, are playing a larger part in the overall healthcare service that an individual receives. Big box stores are all about the rapid servicing of customers, but with low expectations. This is where independent pharmacies can offer the extra care needed by their patients, by offering niche products and services not provided by big box stores.”
Gross added, “I was just speaking with one of our customers who is opening his fourth pharmacy location, even among many big box stores in his service area. He’s able to do this by delivering specialty medication, personalized services like bedside delivery to a local hospital, curbside pickup using mobile POS technology, and again, focusing on niche products and services that big box stores can’t compete in. It’s a matter of refocusing on your customer.”
It won’t be easy for those 154 American towns to recover as those Wal-Mart locations close. But one thing is clear: small businesses have never been more important for the country’s well being.