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It’s a bold marketing move, a show of cards that doesn’t happen too often in the business world.
In the last month, Crestwood Supermarket cashiers have begun slipping fliers into bags and posting fliers with a stark statement in capital letters.
“PLEASE USE US -or- LOSE US!”
Owner John Mouser is not one to fear change. He has been ahead of the curve throughout his career — the first grocery in the county open past 6 p.m., the first open on Sunday, the first 24-hour store, the first to accept credit cards, the first to scan items. And he is not afraid of a little competition — Kelly’s, Beard’s and several other independent stores competed with him, when he first opened his doors in 1969. Winn-Dixie opened down the road since then. He’s outlasted them all.
But the changes of the last decade may mount up to be too large.
The growth of Crestwood has largely missed him, with the greatest concentrations near the Jefferson County line and along the Ky. 329 Bypass. And with that is a change in mindset, focused around Jefferson County instead of Crestwood.
Recently a woman came into his store after living near the bypass for 10 months. She remarked that until she received an ad from the supermarket on her door, she had never ventured into the town of Crestwood.
“10 months and she didn’t even know it existed,” he said.
Mouser still has a cadre of longtime customers that he greets by name as he hands them a shopping cart or wanders the aisles, helping shoppers locate items.
But instead of those customers having four kids at home like they did 20 years ago, now they just have a cat, and they don’t need as many groceries, Mouser said.
Most of the new residents of Crestwood fall somewhere between loyal and oblivious.
“They want us to be here for their convenience, but as for being their supermarket — we’re not,” he said.
Other than a lifestyle centered around Jefferson County, the main culprit is Wal-Mart, he said. Kroger doesn’t bother him.
“Kroger is good, clean competition. We can survive against Kroger,” he said. But Wal-Mart has changed the whole distribution and pricing process. It can afford to underprice a grocery item for a period of time, and make up the difference in other merchandise, he said. It sells a 12-pack of soft drinks cheaper than Mouser purchases wholesale because of its clout with soft-drink companies.
“I’ve always had competition, but Wal-Mart is a different sort of competition,” he said.
In a business with a razor thin profit margin and trending downward, two more events brought the situation to a head.
The first was construction of Walgreens — not so much the competition as the actual construction. While Walgreens was building, the supermarket had an entrance blocked and only five parking spaces.
“It hurt us tremendously,” Mouser said.
And in mid-September, a windstorm and subsequent power outage caused more than $106,000 worth of food to rot.
So it comes to this, the marketing pitch of “please use us or lose us.”
The flier reads, “Dear Customer, The windstorm of 2008 caused us all a great loss.
“We lost ALL of our perishables, and our insurance was not enough to cover our loss.
“We need and appreciate your business. We have been a part of this great community for 40 years, and for us to remain your hometown supermarket we need your support. Please, use us for your shopping needs or we may be forced to close our doors.
“Thanks for your years of support and hopefully many more... Please pass this on to a friend so that we may continue to be a part of this great community.
“PLEASE USE US -or- LOSE US!
Thanks, Your friends and family of the Crestwood Supermarket.”
After taking such a hit, Mouser decided he needed to close the store at night, breaking 36 years of 24-hour convenience.
Denise Graham is one of those shoppers who falls between loyal and oblivious. She has lived in Briar Hill for three years, long enough that she calls the store Crestwood IGA.
She feels a strong connection to the community that welcomed her family with open arms and homemade pies before the boxes were unpacked, but not a connection to Crestwood Supermarket.
She said if she is mid-recipe and needs an ingredient, she’ll run to the supermarket, or she’ll stop as she’s headed to pick up one of her sons from school.
But she does most of her shopping at Meijer and Costco, she said. They have more variety and cheaper prices, she said. With three hungry boys and a husband to feed, price is paramount. She likes to spend her money in Oldham County, she said, but businesses can’t expect her to pay more money.
Her neighbor is a die-hard IGA shopper, she said. And without children at home, price is not as big of an issue for her neighbor, Graham said. Her neighbor likes going to a place where the butcher knows her name.
Graham said she feels the same way about Stoess Hardware as she does about the supermarket. If all she needs is a can of spray paint or a paintbrush, she’ll run to Stoess. It’s not worth the hassle and gas of going into Louisville.
“40 or 50 cents doesn’t make that big of a deal,” she said.
She could actually get a paint brush $1.50 cheaper at Stoess, although other products, such as lumber, are more expensive, according to a price survey by The Oldham Era.
Clayton Stoess Jr., manager of Stoess Hardware and the owner of Crestwood Manor, which includes the supermarket building, said perceptions like Graham’s are something he constantly battles. He said his prices are competitive with Home Depot and Lowe’s.
He knows he can’t just expect people to shop locally, they have to offer a good price in comparison to the big box stores. He hopes they also can beat those stores in terms of convenience and customer service, or they’re not doing their job.
Mouser said one advantage of a smaller store is how long it takes to shop.
“There’s more to a retail business than price,” he said. For one, a customer doesn’t have to spend an hour and walk a mile just to pick up 10 items in his store, he said.
Stoess’ business has survived since 1902 when his grandfather, Milton A. Stoess, founded it. You could call it a Pop and Pop and Pop store. Clayton Jr.’s father, Clayton Stoess Sr. still comes to the office every day at age 90. Stoess Jr.’s son-in-law also works in the store.
Like Mouser, Stoess Hardware’s business depends on a loyal longtime customer base. While his sales to contractors have steadily increased, he has had trouble reaching newer homeowners in the community. Many of them move to South Oldham from Louisville and maintain their old shopping habits, he said, or work in Louisville and shop there before coming home.
Vincent Fanelli is a loyal shopper of both stores, and a longtime friend of both store owners, swapping stories with Stoess Sr. of their road trip to Mexico, or their service in World War II.
“I like to deal locally,” he said. “It’s just community, as simple as that.”
When people shop locally, Stoess said, they not only improve their community by contributing money to the school system through donations and commercial taxes, they build the community by bumping into their neighbors.
He says there is a lot of lip service paid about building business in Oldham County to alleviate the tax burden on residential property, but residents don’t necessarily back it up by supporting local businesses. Stoess said he’d also like county government and the local chamber of commerce to do more. He points to the difficulty of replacing the supermarket’s sign as an example of the lack of accommodation toward business in Oldham County. He wanted to install an electronic sign that would be able to advertise specials at the various stores in the shopping center. The county’s sign ordinance would not allow that.
He said if residents are really sincere about growing the commercial base in the county he said, the residents, county government and city governments need to be more business friendly.
“Our actions are not mirroring what we’re saying,” he said.
What is especially grinding to him, as well as to Mouser, is when people he has never seen before and may never see again, come into his store asking for a donation.
“We want to help, but it is a two-way street,” he said.
Executive Director Deana Epperly Karem said the Oldham County Chamber of Commerce helps about 1,800 businesses and 400 chamber members compete with a Louisville-first attitude.
About 80 percent of Oldham County residents work in Louisville, she said, and many of them do their shopping on their way home, not thinking about the options in Oldham County.
The other mindset she tries to combat is that Oldham County businesses don’t have the products residents need, or at a competitive price.
“And that’s just not so,” Karem said.
She said one thing the chamber is doing to get people to shop locally is the launch of WhyBuyOldhamCounty.com, a listing of contact information of the chamber’s member businesses.
So, why buy Oldham County?
“We need to support the jobs that are here, and keep our local economy as healthy as we can,” she said.
Proof positive that Louisville retailers aren’t always cheaper than Oldham County is Dizzy Dave’s East in La Grange. It is another family-owned institution competing with a big box store, in this case, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the like.
Owner Paul Gasser said his business stays alive because “We outwork them.”
Dizzy Dave’s aligns with three-quarters of businesses in Oldham County with fewer than 25 employees. In fact, it’s just Gasser, his wife and youngest son. They manage to out-compete the big stores in some prices. He has the mortgage paid off and doesn’t see as much theft, which reduces his overhead.
An insulated pair of Carhartt overalls is $25 cheaper than Dick’s. A pair of Nike Shox is $15 cheaper, and Gasser’s everyday price on Levi’s is the same as Kohl’s sale price, according to a price survey by The Oldham Era.
The economic downturn means people may not buy the $80 pair of sneakers, he said, instead they’ll buy the $60 pair. But fortunately, to offset it, higher gas prices mean people are shopping closer to home.
Although his business is thriving in the face of the big boxes, Gasser doesn’t think he could launch the same businesses today as he did 26 years ago. A young entrepreneur wouldn’t have the chance to score a contract with Nike or Adidas today, he said, they don’t want to deal with anyone smaller than a chain store.
Michael Reidy has only been in business in Oldham County for five years, but loyal customers keep the The Irish Rover Too thriving. For one, it costs much less to bring back customers through a good experience than drumming up new customers with advertising, he said.
A restaurant is hit harder in a recession than a grocery store or hardware store, he said — people don’t have to spend money dining out like they have to buy groceries or household items.
But his regulars still dine out, and it makes him all the more thankful for them, he said.
Reidy was drawn to open a restaurant in La Grange in part because it reminded him of towns in his native Ireland, places with a sense of heritage.
He said when people get to Main Street, they start to walk slowly, in a cadence unto itself.
“It is really something to see. Something you can’t get in a development,” Reidy said.
He said the downtown merchants are a tough group, running their business without any corporate backing, just the help of each other.
He thinks downtown merchants have relied on creative tactics to keep people in La Grange through their farmers’ market, ghost tours and others. It keeps people from shopping in Louisville — always the goal, he said.
He sees developments like Norton Commons spending millions trying to recreate what already exists on main streets throughout small towns in Kentucky. Some small towns like La Grange are making it, while others have fallen behind. He thinks a good indicator of a town’s health is checking out the town clock.
“I reckon if the clock works, it’s got some life in it,” he said.
But that life, that soul and that heritage aren’t a given.
“When you go to shop at the big boxes, you leave your heritage behind you,” he said.
Reidy explains the feeling of owning his own restaurant instead of managing some chain franchise.
At nighttime, when the restaurant is busy is and full, the air is filled with the tumult of having a good time, he said. As the night dies down and everyone leaves for the night, he goes to lock the door, and he looks back into that living, breathing space.
Through the exhaustion is a tremendous satisfaction, he said.
“It’s a wonderful thing to know whatever happens today depends on me,” he said.
Mouser knows he may be closing up his own shop for the last time before long. There’s frustration in his voice when he talks about his store coming to a possible end after all he’s given to the community.
“Our taxes built the schools. Now the people coming out for the school systems want to shop in Jefferson County,” Mouser said.
It’s up to the community whether he survives, he said.
“If the community supports us, we’re gonna stay. If they don’t...” He lets it hang in the air as he goes back to handing out shopping carts and greeting customers by first name.
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