Last week’s announcement by Sears Holdings that the Gallipolis Kmart is among a number of stores to close early this year is a loss to our community on a number of levels — commercially, economically, and most importantly, personally to those individuals who will be deprived of their jobs. It also provides a sober reminder that trends in retail sales and shopping, while not always applicable to this area, do and will continue to decide the access and delivery of goods to local consumers.
Not that I profess to be an expert in this particular field, but while you can accept what’s going on in business today, an operation like Kmart and its place in the community is vital. That’s because there are shoppers who like to go into a store due to its carrying a certain piece of merchandise, to take advantage of sales or simply go in and browse. And while there is no doubt that online shopping has eroded store traffic, especially when Christmas looms, there is still something familiar and comforting about wandering the aisles yourself when seeking out that something special.
Or at least it is to me. There was a twinge of nostalgia at the announcement of the local closing because the Kmart had only been open a few weeks when I first came to Gallipolis as a summer intern at the Tribune in June 1979. Personally, it was gratifying to have another shopping choice when you needed something beyond groceries, a new shirt or an item to dress up the rental space where you stayed that could be easily transferred to your living quarters in college when you returned to complete your studies. In a larger sense though, Kmart’s presence made a statement about the economic vitality of the area at that time, that Kmart wouldn’t have opened here unless it was confident the Gallipolis location would be a moneymaker.
I have no figures to back up this contention, but the local Kmart must have been profitable despite the changing economy and expansion of Wal-Mart into Gallipolis in 1998. The Kmart has co-existed with the retail giant in this community simply because it had that most treasured of attributes, a loyal customer base, and in the fact it was an alternative. Older concerns in town like G.C. Murphy Co. had closed their doors by the ’90s, and newer operations like Hills didn’t survive, but the Kmart remained open because it had over the years created its customer base in the tri-county area and beyond. Again, we are reminded that the Gallipolis store’s closing was a decision on the corporate level, and certainly not a local choice.
This is not to say that other retailers and stores of local origin can’t meet the needs of consumers. They do so rather well. And they too serve as alternatives that deserve your patronage, because a little competition can’t hurt. The loss of any business diminishes the community and we are left to wonder what, if anything, will take up the slack. For the closing of the Kmart puts local people, some of them friends and neighbors, out of work, so it is incumbent on our leadership and economic development experts to find and attract a new opportunity, new employment and continue those workers’ ability to contribute to the local economy. At least we can hope so if Wall Street’s big show of confidence as a new administration takes over in Washington spreads to our shores of the Ohio River.
The big box retail store will continue to be a part of the national scene for some time to come despite the inroads of using the Internet to buy things. That’s kept a whole new industry busy meeting those needs, along with the Postal Service, UPS and FedEx as far as delivery goes. But there is still an attraction, not here but everywhere, to frequent a store and see what it has to offer without the benefit of a computer screen. It’s like using e-readers to access books; it’s easy and addicting, but there are enough of us old-schoolers around who still like the feel of a book or magazine (or newspaper, for that matter) in our hands. So it goes with shopping. And hopefully, a similar business will take the place of the soon-to-be-missed Kmart in that Upper River Road location we came to know so well.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing Co. for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.