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What’s next for small, rural grocery stores? More shoppers and business

Weekly grocery spending increased by 17% in 2020. That’s not entirely surprising given that restaurants were closed, or saw their capacity significantly reduced in much of the U.S. after March. 

However, it was surprising to see shoppers choose online ordering in the volume they did. In 2019, 81% of consumers reported that they had never bought groceries online using services like Instacart. Fast-forward to 2020, and online grocery shopping exploded, with 79% of consumers reporting that they ordered online. It reflected a jump of more than 6% in one year alone. That trend isn’t expected to change, either. Even as the pandemic subsides and COVID-19 vaccines roll out the industry expects online ordering to account for 21.5% of the market by 2025.

Shoppers in rural communities will continue to rely on their local grocers, though. Like the Big M in Ovid, New York. Last year, weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the state’s economy, Sue Cirencione took over the grocery store her father started in 1970. Located downtown, the Big M serves as a community centerpiece, as much as it does as an essential access point for food.

Sue Cirencione after taking over the Big M store in Ovid, New York. Credit: Finger Lakes Times.

October was the store’s 50 year anniversary. “Some days it feels like I never left,” Cirencione recalled. “Other days my body tells me I’m getting old. I feel very fortunate. The community has embraced us throughout the pandemic and have really lifted us up.” She had a few trips to the emergency room during 2020; and in just a couple short weeks she will celebrate her own one-year anniversary since taking over.

Rural grocery stores don’t view online ordering or delivery the same way those do in more urbanized communities. Why? Technology is slower to get to these communities, and often, the people who live in these places are simply more comfortable heading to the grocery store. That proved to be the case even during a pandemic, as Cirencione thought back on her whirlwind first year owning and operating the Big M.

RELATED: Three things that will change in the grocery business (Forbes)

“The changing mandates, concern for employees and customers, frustrations with supply and demand issues — and of course — masks,” she said of the challenges. Those challenges led to more business, which meant the ability to reinvest in a space where many were just trying to survive. “We were able to reinvest in the store and make numerous upgrades and improvements.” The store has new floors, which Cirencione says is by far the best thing they finished in 2020, as well as new registers with a modern operating system, as well as updated aisle signs and awning out front. She says they also went all-in decorating for the holidays. “Just wait until next year, though,” she joked. 

Remember though, the Big M is operating in a community of approximately 540 residents. That’s how many people live in the village of Ovid. While the store serves residents well-outside that immediate community – it requires a special connection to the surrounding area to stay afloat. Cirencione doesn’t take any of her customers for granted, noting that the community has made an incredible difference over the last year.

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

“This community has been amazing,” she said. “They have embraced me, our team, and our causes.  Our Breast Cancer fundraising for Thrive to Survive and our Christmas Food/Gift Boxes fundraising months were truly mind blowing.  The community really stepped up to the plate financially, with donations — food, product, etc. — and so much more.”

Call it a sense of awe. “I believe we need the community and I sure hope they feel they need us,” she added. “We can’t survive without them.” Keeping the community safe has been top priority for Cirencione, who said that keeping up with changing expectations for businesses was a big challenge. The team was up for it though. “Trying to abide by the mandates and keeping everyone feeling safe – customers and employees – was not easy. But we did it, and that’s what’s important.”

But what comes next? We know in some communities online ordering will grow. That also includes ‘mobile’ orders, which are those placed through a smartphone or tablet. That will undoubtedly mean more delivery of food, too. That said, in communities with aging populations, or large segments of the population without hefty computer literacy there’s likely to be a delay there.  

The data from 2020 shows that two major factors will be in play moving forward:

– First is focus on larger purchases, and what’s considered ‘shelf-stable’ foods. These are the items that can last longer in the pantry, and both of these factors are born out of people’s desire to shop less often while the pandemic is still a societal issue.

– Second is focus on speed, convenience, and safety. While the safety measures seen during the pandemic likely won’t last beyond it – other convenience factors will. For example, stores will continue stocking more essential, quick items at the front of the store to encourage quick turnaround for shoppers looking to get in-and-out. Checkout lanes, aisle setup, and other layout features of grocery stores will likely keep evolving.

RELATED: 2020 by the numbers in the grocery business (Supermarket News)

What about you, though? What would you like to see change in grocery stores moving forward? Let us know your thoughts and it might be included in a future story on this topic. Email us at [email protected].