Grocery stores in rural Iowa are struggling to survive amid competition from larger superstores and changes in the state’s population. There are around 550 grocery stores in Iowa. That’s down from 1,400 stores in 1995 and 700 stores in 2005.
Jerry Fleagle is president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. “Losing a grocery store in a small town is a huge challenge,” Fleagle said. “That is probably one of the three key ingredients to a successful small town – a grocery store, a school and a bank.” The rise of Wal-Mart and Target “super centers” is just one factor.
Fleagle says small town Iowa grocery stores are disappearing along with those town’s residents. “As that population relocates, a lot times to metropolitan areas, the market forces create a vacuum and the stores eventually go away…especially in communities with under 1,000 population,” Fleagle said.
A report released by researchers at Iowa State University in 2008 suggested small town grocery stores should build their customer base by promoting their community involvement and offering services such as local delivery and loading groceries into vehicles.
Fleagle says more Iowans living in small towns are commuting to jobs in larger cities and they tend to buy groceries near where they work rather than where they live. “Iowa’s road system is so much more improved that people do commute 30, 40, 60 miles. If they’re in a larger community, a lot times they’ll stop there and shop before they return home,” Fleagle said.
“It’s really important if they want a grocery store in their small community…they will need to support it.” Fleagle says around 200 of Iowa’s remaining grocery stores are owned by independent operators. He says many of those individuals are older and are struggling to find a qualified person to take over the store.
The Iowa Grocers Association offers a training program for those potential “next generation” owners.