How Gulf South country stores adapt to inflation | WBHM 90.3

2022-07-18 17:42:39 By : Ms. Aroma LIU

A paper towel holder in the shape of a grandmother sits in the Simmons-Wright Company country store in Kewanee, Mississippi, July 1, 2022. The general store sells everything from fried catfish to boomerangs to lotion.

Stephan Bisaha, Gulf States Newsroom

With two floors filled with baskets of cotton, cast-iron skillets and farming plows, the Simmons-Wright Company in Kewanee, Mississippi is a country boy’s dream. The boy dreaming on one July afternoon is 75-year-old Louis Hankins. 

Hankins made the short drive from Alabama to Lauderdale County where the historic general store has sat for the past 138 years.

As he skims through the store, he can’t help but play show-and-tell with some of the rusted farm equipment on the shelves — like carving blades and sausage mills. But the joy of holding these items is bittersweet.

“Country life [is] not like what it used to be,” Hankins said, lamenting the disappearance of stores like the Simmons-Wright Company and the culture they represent.

To a degree, Hankins is right. County stores have been a hallmark of the rural South for generations —  the kind of mom-and-pop places where you can buy fertilizer in one aisle, lotion in the next and crickets for bait in a third. Many closed over the recent decades, pushed out of business by big stores like Walmart, which rolled into town offering cheaper prices.

Some of the Mississippi stores that stayed open now worry that high prices from surging inflation will do what everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Great Depression could not — force them to permanently close. But despite their modest appearances, adapting to change is nothing new for stores that have survived for more than 100 years.

For all the nostalgia Hankins has while digging through the shelves of Simmons-Wright Company and pulling farming tools, he left the store without buying any of it.

That’s just fine for owner Gary Pickett. While the knick-knacks draw customers in, Pickett estimates merchandise only makes up about 20% of his sales. The real money is in the food at 1884 Cafe.

The restaurant housed inside the Simmons-Wright Company serves up traditional country fare — fried catfish, burgers and more —  which Hankins raved about after he and his wife ate there.

The home improvement side of the business does well, though Pickett believes inflation will soon cut into those sales, too. Replacing an item like copper wire, for example, will come at a steep cost not just for the customers, but for Pickett as well. He can currently sell the wire at a steep discount after buying it from a hardware store that went under five years ago.

“If I replaced like that roll he’s got right there, instead of being like $25, that be like 60 bucks,” Pickett said while pointing out a customer.

While the old nutcrackers and antique soda bottles rarely sell, that doesn’t make them worthless. The atmosphere they create makes for good business by drawing in customers like Hankins.

In fact, country store chic is now modern fashion. New country stores offer the look of the old stores but with modern amenities — like air conditioning — and new takes on novelty gifts — like ranch dressing sodas.

And while they haven’t adapted the look, big chain dollar stores have become the de facto general stores in the rural South — and tough competition for legacy stores like Pickett’s.

“Dollar Generals are everywhere,” Pickett said. “They’re what’s really the competition. But I don’t try to compete with them. We just try to keep on doing our thing with the cooking part.”

Pickett made the pivot to food after the Great Recession hit the store’s bottom line in 2008.  It’s one example of a competitive advantage old, small stores like Simmons-Wright Company have over big chains — during tough economic times, it’s easier for them to switch to a new business model or service.  

Pickett’s family is now divided on whether to make another change and stop selling the old goods while keeping them as rustic decorations.

Pickett’s son has also been pushing to convert the space to an event venue, at least part-time, believing weddings and photos near the store’s old cotton gin could bring in an extra $10,000 per event.

No matter the decision made, Pickett knows change is inevitable – and he embraces that. Whether it’s selling caskets or stocking silk shirts, the Pickett family has never shied away from trying something new to keep the store open.

“They were people that did what it took to survive,” Pickett said.

At 12 years old, Kelley’s General Store in Sandersville, Mississippi began as an attempt to “bring back the long forgotten idea of the ‘full-service station.’” Customers can have their fuel pumped for them without exiting their vehicle and also shop for a variety of items, like groceries, farming supplies, flowering seeds and outdoor sporting goods once inside.

Unlike other stores, where the canned goods section overflows into the bait and souvenir aisles, Kelley’s is modular. Walk through the main door and it will look and feel like a gas station convenience store. But behind a door to the left of the front register, a complete hardware section is housed in a separate, but connected, room — practically its own store. There are also farm and fishing supplies, as well as hunting gear all with their own rooms.

But despite the store’s young age compared to the likes of Simmons-Wright Company, Kelley’s has seen its own tough times.  

First, there was the COVID slowdown. Even worse was when the Love’s Travel Stop opened down the road. But nothing has hit as hard as high inflation, which has touched every item sold.

“I would say the inflation is worse than the COVID and the Love’s,” Greg Kelley, the store’s owner and namesake, said. “It’s hurt everybody around.”

Watermelon prices are now $10 instead of $8 because Kelley has to factor in the cost of gas — averaging $4.06 per gallon in Mississippi on July 17 — after his father drives the 90-mile round trip to pick them up from Smith County. Even the live crickets used for bait are more expensive, costing $5 for 100 of them — up from $4.

Kelley determines his prices by watching the market, but not in the traditional sense. A few times a month, he calls up other stores to see how much they’re charging before deciding what new number to stick on items like fertilizer or chicken feed.

He also factors in his customer base. The town of Sandersville has about twice the poverty rate as the rest of the Mississippi. Because of this, Kelly has been avoiding raising prices as much as he should to maintain his margins — concerned his customers’ inability to pay will hurt both him and them.

Kelley believes he can hold on for two or three more years with this method. But to survive beyond that, he said prices need to do more than stop rising – they also need to come down. 

For 103 years, A.F. Carraway has been located in Bassfield, Mississippi, a small town in Jefferson Davis County with less than 250 people living there.

Owner Colleen Powell stocks the store with the typical items you’d find at a general store serving a small town and its surrounding communities. Still, one big seller, in particular, has kept her customers coming back for years.

A.F. Carraway is the only spot that you can buy Round House overalls and jeans not just in Mississippi, but in Alabama and Louisiana, too, Powell claims. The Oklahoma-based workwear brand — itself more than a century old — is prominently displayed with stacks of jeans roughly two dozen high towering beneath a banner celebrating A.F. Carraway’s centennial.

But A.F. Carraway is not immune to the ills of inflation. Recently, the wholesale price of all of Powell’s goods has changed week-to-week, and that includes the coveted jeans. Round House’s last shipment to the store included a price change that increased how much Powell pays for each pair of jeans $5 above what she normally sells them for. Because of this, she had to raise her prices by about $8 — from $31.95 to just under $40.

The $40 ceiling was chosen for a reason — Powell, like Kelley in Sandersville, knows her customers can’t afford to pay much more than that. Economically, Bassfield looks like much of the rest of the state with one out of every five of its residents living below the poverty line.

“This is a poor community,” Powell said. “We won’t be able to sell them if we make them too much.”

A.F. Carraway has been in Powell’s family for more than half of its century-long history, with Powell overseeing it for the past nine years. The store’s no money maker and just squeaks by each year — sometimes in the black, sometimes in the red. Powell, however, doesn’t mind, as a self-described retired federal employee who doesn’t need the income to get by.

But the 104th year in business has been particularly slow. Powell said her customers haven’t had the extra money to spend, so they’re shopping less. She’s concerned about the store’s future.

“It’s not going to be us deciding that we want to close the store,” Powell said. “We’re going to be priced out of business.” 

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

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