‘The times, they are a changin’ for retail

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It’s been a week of big business news in the Flathead, topped by the looming closure of our spacious, refurbished Herberger’s store in Kalispell Center Mall. A lot of friends in my age group are lamenting the loss.

Herberger’s is a shopping staple where I grew up, too, and many of us were raised by mothers who shared their expertise on how to get the best deals, whether it was the store’s popular 70 percent off or the “door-buster” coupons.

But retail in America is changing. Mall mainstays struggle to compete with Amazon and other online retail giants.

Another sign of the times is Nelson’s Hardware’s potential relocation from downtown Whitefish to a spot out on the highway. The community has taken great pride in having a hardware store downtown, but the owners have lost their lease on an essential warehouse in back of the store. Customers want more selection and better parking, and the owners are looking at long-term sustainability of their family-owned business. No one can blame them for looking at the big picture and figuring out the best way to survive into the future.

Main Street America has reinvented itself many times through the decades, through boom and bust times. It will do so again.

In my own hometown of Hawley, Minnesota, there were three hardware stores, three grocery stores, three big department stores and the quintessential corner drugstore in the town’s core when I was growing up. Today there’s precious little retail left downtown.

I have plenty of good memories of my hometown of yesteryear: buying school shoes from the very large and unusual lady with a mustache at the Johnson Brothers Department Store, having a Coke and fries with my friends at the Wahl Drug diner; wiling away the time in the bargain basement of Peterson’s while waiting for a ride home after play practice.

Communities adapt, or they die. Hawley is now a thriving bedroom community for the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area 25 minutes away. The downtown is a shadow of its former grandeur, but the focus has shifted to niche needs and specialty services. A former grocery store was converted into a community center for a three-church parish. Much of the new retail growth, though, is out on the highway strip where the heavy traffic is.

Interestingly, in big old Fargo down the road, there’s been a renaissance of its downtown, with trendy, entrepreneurial businesses vying for space. There was a time when many had given up on Fargo’s downtown as big malls ruled and development spread to what are now suburbs. It goes to show that where there’s an entrepreneurial will, there’s a way.

I went to two Chamber of Commerce luncheons this week, one in Kalispell and the other in Evergreen. If you want to feel the positive vibes of what’s happening in our communities, attend these Chamber events. They’re our cheerleaders, the ones who see opportunity, not doom and gloom over an empty storefront.

Alongside a growing “eat local” movement here, there’s been a shift to supporting local retailers as well. Events such as Small Business Saturday are burgeoning as customers value a more personal experience. More and more, consumers want unique shops and restaurants that aren’t Anywhere USA.

There are so many good things happening in the downtown redevelopment throughout our Flathead communities, led by Kalispell’s exciting core plan that will create a trail system on the railroad bed once the tracks are yanked out. I predict good things to come for all of the hearts of our communities.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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