Herald JournalHerald Journal Holiday Guide, Dec. 2, 2002

Local customers are mobile with their shopping, spending

By Lynda Jensen

Small town businesses cater to a different kind of customer nowadays: those who are very willing to travel.

Traveling customers reflect a modern trend of shoppers who visit several towns per day to obtain goods and services.

These same shoppers take advantage of Highway 12 and Highway 7 ­ highways which may be counted as mixed blessings, since the highways take business out of small towns, but also bring in customers from the metro area and other places.

For businesses that need transient traffic, such as gas stations, highways are a blessing, but most small town businesses find it a struggle to capture an audience that is more mobile than ever.

"People are willing to drive within 15 to 30 miles for convenience," commented Realtor Tom Peterson of Lakes Realty.

Certainly, traveling customers are on the radar of local businesses, as reflected by the customer base of some.

For example, there are two businesses in Howard Lake that are heavily dependent on immediate local customers because of the kinds of products they sell: Gerry's SuperValu, and the hardware portion of Joe's Sport Shop an Hardware Hank in Howard Lake.

The shelf life of groceries generally determines that his customers need to be local, commented Gerry Smith.

Smith estimated that 60 percent of his business comes from local patrons, although he draws from Winsted, Waverly, and other local towns.

Joe Drusch of Joe's Sport Shop and Hardware Hank estimates that 80 percent of his hardware business comes from a 10-mile radius.

On the other hand, Drusch's gas station and sporting supplies attracts transient customers from as far away as Wisconsin and the Dakotas, he said.

Other businesses, such as the Country Store in Howard Lake, are not as dependent on local patrons.

For example, the Country Store generally experiences a rush when school is let out ­ not because of students, but because the parents who drive to pick up their children stop on the way to buy items, said manager Wade Serfling.

In fact, the Country Store benefits from commuters, snowbirds, and transient traffic; with about half of its business coming from shoppers on the highway, he said.

Other businesses retain customers from a large area, such as Jerry's TV of Winsted.

His customers come from Winsted, Waverly, and Howard Lake areas, but cover an extended 25 mile radius, commented owner Jerry Otto. "They're coming from all over," he said.

Winsted chiropractor Tim Sheehan echoed this sentiment, saying that his customers were from a 25-to-30-mile radius, he said.

"A majority of our business comes from the Howard Lake-Waverly-Montrose area," commented Chiropractor Sonja Tourville of Montrose Chiropractic.

Tourville attracts 15 to 20 percent of business from the outlying areas, with some as far away as St. Cloud and Montevideo, she said.

Her business is word-of-mouth, she said.

Other businesses take advantage of the Internet, such as Orion Farms.

Orion took a big hit this year because of the flooding, which affected their products.

"It was such a disaster," commented owner Gen Johnson. Orion specializes in shrub roses.

Interestingly enough, Orion garners little business from Waverly, where it is located a few miles south of Highway 12, she said.

However, the same corridor that brings traffic can also choke a business, when traffic is interrupted by construction or road maintenance.

The driving factor appears to be convenience, along with a dose of habit, as people establish their shopping circles in certain areas.

The Highway 12 reconstruction made this crystal clear, Smith commented.

In fact, Smith has yet to regain his former customers because they are likely shopping elsewhere out of habits formed last summer, he said.

"It kicked us in the shorts," he said of the Highway 12 construction.

He predicted it would take him two years to regain his former customer base, if they can break their current habits.

ShadowBrooke Golf Course also took a huge hit when Highway 7 between Excelsior and St. Bonifacious was closed for reconstruction of a bridge, said owner Tom Schmidt.

The golf course attracts about half of its business from metro golfers, he said.

The highway was closed in May, with the projected being done Nov. 1, which didn't happen.

"It was our worst year ever," he said.

Other problems experienced by local businesses include the flooding.

Flooding also hurt tourism in Howard Lake terribly, Smith said.

The recreation activities that would normally attract shoppers into the town didn't happen last summer, he said.

Small towns need a balance of different kinds of businesses, Smith said.

"Every time we lose a business, that's one less reason to come into our town," Smith said.

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