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Upper Valley general stores get a boost from local shopping in the pandemic

  • Melvin Coburn, co-owner of Coburns' General Store, laughs after Martha Fisk, of Sharon, Vt., hands him a bag of donuts she made. Patti Morgan, right, of South Strafford, Vt., asked if she could have one. "He don't share," Fisk said, which created more laughter. Morgan works at the store but was shopping on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kira Campbell, of South Strafford, Vt., leans against her car and chats with Chrissy Jamieson, of Strafford, after Jamieson loaded groceries into Campbell's car. Campbell was using the curbside service that Coburns' General Store is offering. Jamieson works at the store that her parents co-own. Campbell's daughter Rosemary Dotter watches from the driver's seat. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ashley Radicioni, of Sharon, Vt., leaves Coburns' General Store with a handful of items on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in South Strafford, Vt. Strafford resident Randy Coffin's painting hangs outside the general store. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 5/2/2020 9:52:17 PM
Modified: 5/2/2020 9:52:15 PM

These are special times for general stores.

Often regarded as dusty relics in the age of supermarkets and convenience store chains, small-town general stores are getting a boost during the coronavirus pandemic as people turn to them for basic needs, comforted by their proximity and their scale.

And the general stores themselves are adapting by offering curbside pickup and home deliveries, reviving an at-your-service tradition that isn’t offered by many chains and supermarkets.

“Our community has come out in full force to support us. Buying our gift cards, opening accounts ... it’s been good, as sad as this whole (virus) thing is,” said J.J. Pippin, who with her brother Tony Pippin runs the Lyme Country Store, which their parents purchased 33 years ago.

Like other general stores in the Upper Valley, the Pippins have introduced curbside pickup and home deliveries — customers can call or email their orders — as a protocol for people uncomfortable with going into the store or leaving their home.

Just like the old days, according to Pippin.

“It feels like we’re back to where we were when my parents started out years ago,” she said. “Everyone is buying in bulk ... in the past people would drive by us and thought we were a gas station. Now they realize we’re a full grocery store and not just selling beer. Our circle of customers has definitely increased.”

Basic items sell out fast.

“I got a case of yeast in and it went in a day and a half,” Pippin related.

Whereas their off-the-beaten-path location was previously considered a hindrance, general stores are saying it now works to their advantage, as many shoppers no longer commute into work or want to drive to the shopping plazas in West Lebanon under the stay-at-home directives issued in New Hampshire and Vermont.

“Our business has increased, no question about it, because people are traveling more locally than traveling down to Lebanon, which is good for us,” said Melvin Coburn, who runs Coburns’ General Store in South Strafford with his wife, Sue, and daughter, Chrissy. “March and April is usually a slow time of year.”

Coburn said the store receives about 10 to 12 curbside pickup orders every day, and it’s become such a hit “that we’ll probably continue with it” after the pandemic subsides, and he’s seen an uptick in sales for certain products.

“Produce sales have really increased compared to what they had been before,” he noted.

Strafford-area residents also are demonstrating their support for the general store, which also includes a coin-operated laundromat, post office and Mascoma Bank branch.

Ashley Radicioni, who lives about 2 miles from Coburns’ on Turnpike Road and stopped by the store last week to pick up some drinks and snacks before heading to the park with her kids, said she shops there at least twice a week to pick up odds and ends they need at home.

“We are always forgetting something — deli meat, milk, eggs, bread, snacks for the kids sometimes — and this is the closest store,” Radicioni said.

Although Radicioni normally does her grocery shopping in West Lebanon, “we’re trying to limit going there (during the pandemic) and buying a lot more” at Coburns’, she said.

One Coburns’ customer volunteered to build a copper sheet top at the checkout counter because copper is reported to have anti-viral properties that nullify microbial germs.

Patrick Gillespie, a South Strafford carpenter and poet who lives within walking distance and installed the copper countertops, said he went on the Strafford listserv to solicit $10 donations and within one day had raised $300, enough to buy the copper sheeting at Fogg’s Hardware & Building Supply.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Gillespie said about the response from donors. “That’s the South Strafford community. And the store is at the center of it.”

Melvin Coburn said he was skeptical when first told about how copper might be able to help prevent the spread of the virus, but has since heard the same from other customers.

It does present one challenge, however.

“We’re trying to keep it shiny,” Coburn said. “I don’t want it to turn green.” (Gillespie says that won’t happen as long as water is kept off the copper surface.)

Dan & Whit’s in Norwich has nearly turned itself into a social services agency. In addition to its regular collections for the Upper Valley Haven, the store has launched three separate funds to raise donations: one to support the fire department making local home deliveries, a second to feed front-line workers and a third to pay for building “victory gardens” for people who can’t afford the frames and kits.

The store has also been making weekly deliveries to the Kendal at Hanover retirement community — the average run numbers about 70 orders — and has also introduced delivery to Quail Hollow along Route 10 in West Lebanon.

Dan Fraser, whose family has owned the store for three generations, calls Dan & Whit’s “a community hub” and said the store has been deeply involved in the neighborhood by employing area teens and advocating local shopping.

Although sales of staple items have been good, Dan & Whit’s has taken a big hit at its deli counter, which usually does a robust breakfast and lunch business. Sales have fallen off sharply with people staying home from work, Fraser said.

“We went from selling 300 breakfast sandwiches a day to 15; 200 to 400 sandwiches and burgers for lunch down to 25 to 50,” Fraser said. Sales of sodas and candy bars that people often grab to go along with the sandwiches have also plummeted.

On the other hand, “we’re selling a lot of 25-pound bags of flour ... and beer and wine. Every day is Friday,” he said.

Fraser foresees continuing with curbside pickup and home delivery even when the pandemic passes.

“Absolutely. There are certain people who love this,” he said.

The loss in meal business because businesses are closed is also felt at by Jake’s Market & Deli, the Lebanon-based group of nine convenience stores, including two new grocery markets in Enfield and Canaan.

“It’s been kind of a mixed bag for us,” said Jake’s owner Bruce Bergeron. “Our conventional stores have seen a decline in businesses but our small grocery stores have seen an increase.”

He said the convenience stores “rely on people going to work every day,” while the markets in Enfield and Canaan — where grocery sales are up from 10% to 20% — are benefiting from Mascoma Valley residents who do not want to travel to the supermarkets in West Lebanon.

That, in turn, has led to a swell in first-time customers discovering Jake’s grocery markets, especially the new store in Enfield, which opened last year, according to Bergeron.

Perhaps most surprising of all, Bergeron said, is how customers have embraced curbside pickup — to the point that he now sees it as a permanent service at Jake’s markets going forward.

“It took about a week to realize that it’s here to stay,” Bergeron said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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