Shopko closings are opportunities for communities to rebuild local retail

Some 13 cities and towns in Wyoming are reeling after the closure of a main local business outlet.

Shopko closed its general stores in Wheatland, Torrington, Newcastle, Greybull, Lander, Mountain View, Thermopolis, Worland, Powell, Buffalo, Douglas, Green River, and Afton in recent months, leaving customers in those towns scratching their heads about where are they going to go now for shopping and other needs?

To cities the size of Cheyenne, Rock Springs, Laramie, or Sheridan, or Gillette, such a closure would be a problem but not a calamity. In these smaller towns, it is a crisis.

Here in my town of Lander, Shopko will be missed. Shoppers are 23 miles from a Walmart and a Walgreens in Riverton but still it is not handy. We have lots of smaller stores and shops that will try to fill the need, but it is still a big loss.

At first glance, the closure of all these stores gives us an inferiority complex. Perhaps our local economies are not strong enough to support a store like Shopko.

Or even worse, the modern internet economy must have killed them off. It is a sign of the times. Or is it?

Then there is the scourge of petty theft and shoplifting that is plaguing stores all across the country. Pilferage has brought down many a small-town store.

Or could it be just bad management? Folks who can survive the good times often are clueless how to succeed during the tough times.

My theory is that all the above may have been factors in Shopko’s Wyoming demise, but the biggest reasons this chain of 363 stores failed were greed and short-term profit taking.

Back when these were Pamida stores (named for the company’s founder’s three sons, Pat, Mike, and Dave and based in Omaha) this chain was profitable and successful.

Like so many companies these days, along came a hedge fund or other types of moneymen from Wall Street and they sucked poor Shopko dry. When all the money was gone, they declared bankruptcy, causing terrific ripple effects across the country in 363 small towns. The owners had paid themselves $117 million in dividends over the past four years.

Our local store was always an odd duck. It never seemed to have enough products on the shelves. Its pharmacy was erratic until it was sold off in a desperate ploy on the part of the Shopko executives to raise cash. Their products often did not match the season or the market. The corporate owners were not paying attention.

In a word, it was a management style based on short-term vision and quick bucks for the owners. 

Thus, it is important for folks in our small towns not to beat themselves up over the demise of an important local store. And it is another reason to celebrate our stores that have local owners or, at least, local Wyoming owners. 

Phil Roberts of Laramie blames the closures on greed and especially on the policies of President Donald Trump, which might be a bit of a stretch. He concludes, “All in all, the closures speak out for regulation of pure and simple corporate-raider greed as well as a sane trade policy. The Shopko example brings it all home.”

Parker Jackson of Lyman says of the Shopko closing, “For those of us in Bridger Valley, the closing of the Mountain View location means that things will go largely go back to the way they were before it opened. 

“We do have Benedict’s, which most use for their grocery needs and a few other things. For a lot of goods like clothes, shoes, and electronics, most from Bridger Valley will drive half an hour to Walmart in Evanston or an hour to Rock Springs. For more specific shopping needs, people will go to Utah. Some will also turn more towards online shopping options. 

“It is a loss for Mountain View and Lyman, but the extent remains to be seen,” he says. 

Tom Lubnau of Gillette takes a dimmer view, “Bill, you are thinking like a baby boomer. Amazon is driving the closure of these stores. When we wanted to see a TV show, we had to wait until next week to see it. Our society is now used to pulling a magic box out of our pockets, pressing a few buttons and having something arrive on our doorstep. 

“Shopko is a symptom of a much greater disease which includes lack of interaction,” he concludes. 

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