By Marcia Love
Val Marie’s only grocery store may be forced to close its doors if it doesn’t see a profit in the coming months.
The Whitemud Grocery has been operating in the red for about three years, and the board of directors is asking for the community’s support in keeping it alive.
“We’ve looked at all sorts of ideas, but what it comes down to is we need more sales,” said Laureen Marchand, chair of the Whitemud Grocery board.
The grocery store serves not only the residents of the small community, but also the seasonal visitors who come to Grasslands National Park.
Although it is the only grocery store for a great distance, Marchand said it is still competing with the bigger grocery franchises in the city.
“People travel — their kids play hockey, they travel on business, sooner or later you have to go to Swift Current for a doctor or family or something — and then people get their groceries there,” she explained.
While she doesn’t believe it’s anyone’s fault, she noted in a small community every dollar counts.
The Whitemud Grocery is a community-owned share corporation, but in its beginnings it was a privately operated store, opening in about the 1950s, Marchand estimated. When one of the owners decided it was time to retire, the other did not wish to run the business full-time. It became a community-owned operation in 2007, with shares offered.
“It was southwest Saskatchewan’s success story at that time, because there were 100 shares available, and 96 of them sold,” recalled Marchand, noting most of these were bought by local residents.
The grocery store did well for several years, but the last two to three years has brought “a change in demographics, which has been reflected in the store’s bottom line,” she stated.
This year, Marchand suspects the store will post its third consecutive operating deficit.
Because of the dire situation, the board of directors notified the community of the need for the Whitemud Grocery to generate more revenue. Last month, a letter was sent out to local residents explaining the store’s financial state.
But according to the board’s calculations, $15 more per person per week spent at the store could make all the difference.
“If 50 people in our trading area spend $15 more per week at the store on non-sale-priced groceries (excluding tobacco and liquor), it would be enough to keep Whitemud Grocery in business,” the letter stated.
The extra money cannot be spent on sale items or tobacco or liquor as these items don’t have the same margin on them and the board has no control over it, Marchand explained.
“When you hear your local grocery store is in a deficit position, you might think it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to save it, and that’s not the case,” she stated. “A small change in shopping dollars would make a big difference to us.”
The population of Val Marie has shrunk a bit in recent years from its 135 residents reported at the last census in 2011, Marchand said, and losing 10 to 12 people makes a big difference in the local economy.
But the community is still able to have a respectable grocery store with very competitive prices for a small town. Tourists who stop into the store have often commented it’s the best small-town store they’ve ever seen, Marchand noted.
“We have a wide selection and good produce and we do have the liquor vendor in the store,” she said.
The closest grocery stores to Val Marie are a small co-op grocery store in Bracken and another grocery store in Ponteix.
“Your grocery store, your school, your post office, your community hall, those are at the heart of a small community,” Marchand said. “You lose one and it would really make a difference.”
She noted it means making a conscious decision to buy the grocery items available locally from the Whitemud Grocery or residents may lose the ability to walk down the street to buy milk.
The grocery store reported its first deficit three years ago when it had to complete repairs to its roof. The board thought this was a “one-time thing,” taking money out of reserves to cover the cost of the work. But last year’s deficit was a surprise, Marchand said.
While sales have gone up some this year, it’s not enough — especially taking inflation into account.
The Whitemud Grocery has a store manager, a manager of the liquor vendor, an employee who is almost working full-time and three to four casual staff. There are never more staff than necessary on shift at any time, Marchand said.
She added the store is well-managed, and operating costs were reduced this year, “but we aren’t bringing in enough money to keep the store operating long-term.”
“With three deficits in a row, then the shareholders will have to decide at the AGM what happens next, and one of the options is to close down,” she said.
The board will present its finances to the shareholders at its AGM at the end of March.