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Inflation, supply, and stiff competition: Ovid Big M’s plight as a small town grocery store

Much has been made about the supply chain crisis and rising cost of fuel’s impact on grocery stores. For Ovid Big M owner Sue Cirencione, these issues are mere salt in the wound amid the ongoing struggle to remain competitive as a small business.

Cirencione bought Big M just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It marked a return to her roots- Cirencione’s father, Jim McKee, founded the grocery store in 1970 and ran it until his retirement in 2014. Cirencione bought the business back from the man her father sold it to on March 1, 2020.

“We had to figure out how we were going to adapt to people that just didn’t really want to come out. We offered curbside service and adapted through all the different changes and mandates,” explains Cirencione. “Now, as we come out of [the pandemic,] with inflation, supply and demand issues, competition, and the closing of Willard, our struggle every day is to sell stuff that is affordable to the community that we live in.”

There used to be three Big M locations within 20 miles of the Ovid store. Cirencione’s is the only one left. In fact, Ovid Big M is one of only two independent grocery stores still operating in Seneca County, the other being Sauders in Seneca Falls.

Big corporations weather changes, small businesses struggle

When issues like rising fuel prices, inflation, and slow business due to unemployment arise, big corporations can often absorb those costs without a huge detriment to their bottom line. For Ovid Big M, those issues make it harder and harder to stay afloat.

“It’s not just the fact that gas has gone up. This generation pays by credit card, right? There are a lot of associated fees that we don’t pass on, but that we have to absorb,” says Cirencione.

Another cost Cirencione’s business absorbs is the surcharge for paper bags.

“I always kind of sarcastically say to people, ‘you know, Wegmans and Walmart charge for bags, but we don’t.’ They make millions of dollars billions of dollars every year,” observes Cirencione.

Besides grocery chains, dollar stores and food pantries are also competitors. Cirencione says she’s grateful that Wegmans sends truckloads of groceries to the local food pantry each week, but the competition is something she must acknowledge.

“I looked at what my father went through in the 80s when interest rates were 15% and the [Seneca Army Depot] was closing, the psych center was closing. He went through all this, but fortunately for him, Walmart wasn’t selling groceries. Dollar stores were not even in existence. Nobody did Instacart, there was no Hello Fresh,” she reflects.

Selling points, exploring new customer avenues

Currently, Cirencione is considering reducing the number of weekly trucks shipments to the store from three to two as the rising cost of fuel is passed onto the store via delivery surcharges.

“All the profits that we’ve made, we’ve reinvested in the store,” says Cirencione.

One major selling points of Ovid Big M is the variety of products it offers. When you shop at the store, there is a wide selection of brands to choose from. Another plus is its deals on meats, as well as the deli on the premise.

Cirencione says she has began making deliveries to Willard Drug Treatment Center prior to its closure last week, and continues to deliver to guards at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus.

“We’re really in a food desert. If the store closes, people don’t have as much access to that kind of stuff. I’ve gotten letters of support from Sen. Pam Helming and the Chamber that hugely help,” says Cirencione, referencing the Seneca County Chamber, of which she is a member. “Little by little improving things. People love the floors. We put in the automatic doors during COVID.”

Small improvements can go a long way in pleasing the customer base. When you walk into Ovid Big M, that’s one of the first things you notice: how impeccably clean the store is, how shiny the floors are. It’s clear how much pride Cirencione and her employees take in maintaining standards at the store.

At this point, explains Cirencione, it’s not so much about Big M turning a profit. Rather, it’s about remaining viable and keeping costs down for customers as much as possible.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Hopes for the future

Is Cirencione worried about the closure of Willard Drug Treatment Center affecting business? She says if Five Points Correctional were to close, that would have a huge impact on the store. But right now, her main concern is what New York State decides to do- or not do- with the Willard property.

“What are they going to do with that land and that beautiful property? It’s next to a gorgeous golf course, it’s got waterfront. Are they just going to let it sit there and rot, not try to do anything with it? There’s so much potential there,” ponders Cirencione. “And what do the rest of us do while they’re trying to figure that out?”

Her biggest hope is that the state invests money in the Willard property to transform into a tourist destination.

“There are so many people that flood here, the Airbnbs are full, and there’s so much potential. It could generate so much tax revenue. They could really put us on the map and bring a lot of businesses back to Main Street. This used to be a very vibrant town. That’s my hope, because I think the community deserves it. I know they want it. That’s my hope that, you know, something like that happens,” says Cirencione.

Still, the Ovid Big M must contend with the reality that if nothing is done, if the cost of fuel and products keep rising, people will be forced to shop elsewhere.

Cirencione says, “I have 30 employees that that depend on me to keep this place going. That’s what keeps me up at night. There are days when I just want to say, ‘Okay, we can’t, this is really hard,’ right? But they are people that live in this community that depend on an income, and there’s also community members that depend on the store.”

You can visit Big M at 7174 Main Street in Ovid. Follow the store’s Facebook page to stay updated on the latest deals and goings-on.