One year ago, Marion, Herington, and Council Grove all said goodbye to their Duckwall stores, casualties of corporate realignment by Duckwall-Alco Stores Inc. to focus solely on their Alco brand.
The closures have left communities scrambling to find alternatives to fill the void, as they try to provide residents with local access to needed products and stem the outflow of sales and sales tax dollars to other cities and counties.
“We need to replace the Duckwall store with some kind of variety store,” Marion Economic Development Inc. President Todd Heitschmidt said. “It would keep costs down, keep sales tax locally, and provide for the east end of the county and west end of Chase county that we serve.”
Marlin Buchholz of Marion Health Mart Pharmacy and Greg Carlson of Carlsons’ Grocery have stocked a few items formerly carried by Duckwall.
“My girls can tell you more than I can,” Buchholz said. “They started keeping a list right after Duckwall closed.
“Janie Meierhoff (former Duckwall manager) told us what we should get just to help people out,” Buchholz said. “We’ve had to pick up some accounts with other wholesalers, but with nickel and dime stuff, it’s hard to make a minimum order.”
“We’ve gotten plates and bowls and mixers and things like that, trying to make up for the loss a little bit, but there’s no way I can carry everything,” Carlson said.
The lack of a variety store like Duckwall inevitably takes business away, Carlson said.
“When you give a person one reason to go out of town, it snowballs from there,” Carlson said.
Both merchants are supportive of efforts to bring a new variety retailer to Marion.
“Both Greg Carlson and I, we’d do anything to help somebody invest in something similar to a Duckwall,” Buchholz said.
Doug Kjellin, Marion city administrator, said the lack of a local variety store negatively impacts other Marion merchants.
“A town in central Kansas is like a store — the more people that come in, there will be additional purchases at other businesses in town,” Kjellin said. “Any excuse people have to go out of town, they’ll use it to go to more than one store.”
One strategy being pursued is to replace Duckwall with another national-brand variety store.
“Several months ago we really tried to court Dollar General, who already has a store in Hillsboro,” Heitschmidt said. “Because of that they don’t feel like they can open one here.”
Kjellin confirmed additional contacts with national chains Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Pamida.
“We are still actively involved in discussions with retail stores that could replace Duckwall,” Kjellin said.
Securing a national-chain store will likely involve the acquisition of property and construction of a new building outside of downtown Marion, as the vacant Duckwall store doesn’t meet their needs, Kjellin said.
“Of the stores we’ve approached, 4,000 sq. ft. of display space isn’t enough, and any of these chains would want to be closer to U.S. 56,” Kjellin said.
Heitschmidt noted some communities have replaced their Duckwall stores using local investors to support a locally-owned variety store, an option which has also been investigated for Marion.
“We’re not limited to a national chain,” Heitschmidt said. “Our group purchased most of the shelving that was left to help give somebody a start. We sure are interested in trying to help somebody out.
“It was profitable when Duckwall was there, and we believe it can work for an individually-owned, stand-alone variety store,” Heitschmidt said.
The biggest challenge appears to be coming up with local investors for such a venture.
“We haven’t seen the interest yet develop. We haven’t found the right folks to support that — not to say that they’re not out there. Maybe we haven’t asked the right question to the right folks,” Heitschmidt said.
The search for potential investors hasn’t been limited to the Marion area, Heitschmidt said.
“Several months ago we put a flyer in the newspaper that was sent out to zip codes other than Marion, to see if individuals were interested in coming home to help out and take over the store,” Heitschmidt said.
The minimum investment to fill the vacant storefront on Main Street with a locally-owned variety store stocked with inventory similar to Duckwall’s is significant, Kjellin said.
“We talked to two different regional wholesale distributors about replacing the same type of merchandise. It was about $150,000 to get everything on the shelf, the cash registers, barcode readers, computer system for inventory control — what it takes to be open as a retail establishment,” Kjellin said.
The former Duckwall location is owned by a private individual, and Lori Heerey, of Heerey Real Estate, who represents the seller, said the building is listed at $80,000.
“The main room is 4,000 sq. ft., the back storage room is 1,200 sq. ft., and the upper storage is another 1,200 sq. ft.,” Heerey said.
Heerey indicated the building owner is willing to consider renting the building to a new tenant, just as Duckwall rented the building during its occupancy.
The demise of Duckwall in Herington was the second significant blow to downtown business, following the closure of the Olsen Gamble store in 2007.
But the loss of Duckwall became an opportunity to capitalize on recruitment of an Abilene retailer, RHV Do-It-Best Hardware, that started but stalled when Gamble closed, Herington Community Development Coordinator Cindy Roberts said.
“I had talked to them after we lost our Gamble store, but at that time we didn’t have a suitable building for them to come into,” Roberts said. “When Duckwall announced they were closing, I knew that was the building they could go into.”
RHV Home & Hardware opened in Herington last June, without any special incentives from the city, and Roberts said the business has been a welcome addition.
“It was looking like a ghost town on that end of the street, but they’ve filled up the block,” Roberts said. “They’re a tremendous asset to the community and very involved, and they hired local people.”
Roberts said difficult economic conditions and local buying practices have presented some challenges as RHV Home & Hardware has gotten established.
“I can’t say they opened at the very best of times — our region is still very much in a depression,” Roberts said. “We lose business every day to the big box stores, because people assume they can get it cheaper if they go out of town. I know for sure there are people in Herington who have never been in that store.
“We’re extremely lucky to have that business in there,” Roberts said. “They have a lot of the things that Gamble’s had and that Duckwall had.”
Like Marion, Council Grove is still searching for a retailer to fill the gap created by the closing of its Duckwall store.
Greater Morris County Development Corporation Executive Secretary Kay Hutchinson said they made overtures to a national chain, but encountered difficulty with financing.
“We worked for several months with Home Town Variety Stores, out of Harlan, Iowa,” Hutchinson said. “It was going to take $120 – 130,000 to get the store. I had some people who would’ve put money into it, but they weren’t real anxious.”
A Dollar General store already existed in Council Grove when Duckwall closed, but Hutchinson said replacing Duckwall remains a goal for the community.
“Duckwall provided a great service and products people needed,” Hutchinson said. “We need that kind of a service, because if we don’t have it that just causes people to run off to Walmart.”
Unlike Marion, Council Grove does not have a large, empty store where Duckwall once was.
“Next door there is a consignment shop, Rerun Consignments. They needed more room, and expanded into the location where Duckwall was,” Hutchinson said.
Council Grove has experienced challenges with Duckwall-Alco Stores, Inc. beyond the closing of Duckwall, Hutchinson said.
“Alco has promised us for years they would put a store in Council Grove. They’ve been in our community several times. We almost had the deal closed a few years ago,” Hutchinson said. “The site they picked had some easements across it that weren’t acceptable. They keep saying the time is not right.”