Doing what's necessary to get by

May 25, 2011

In Montana there are less than one million residents. Considering the area of the state, that works out to be just 6.2 people per square mile on average. As you can imagine people are not evenly distributed around the state; they tend to clump up in the bigger cities like Helena and Twin Falls. That means that businesses in the rural area and smaller centres find that their customers are pretty few and far between. If there is enough traffic for a particular type of business then it is unlikely that a competitor can find enough new customers to squeeze in. It also means that existing merchants sometimes have to expand their business beyond its initial offering to make ends meet.

That can lead to some pretty innovative retail combinations.

For years I have told the story about the business in rural Washington called Tony’s Towing and Tavern. That seemed like an unusual combination at the time. Now it seems more normal after witnessing the retail combinations evident in White Sulphur Springs MT. Now, I am not poking fun at the good people in WSS. Overall they are a very friendly type and it was one place on our trip where I didn’t feel the need to lock the car doors. This is more a tribute to the pioneer spirit that built the town and continues to fuel the creativity of members of the Chamber of Commerce.

The first business you find when you enter from the south is the local nursery. It sells the usual assortment of bedding plants, fertilizers and gardening supplies. Like many similar operations they sell some rustic home décor and decorative items. But to meet the needs of the coffee drinkers in WSS they also opened the first espresso bar. It’s as strange to see an espresso bar in a nursery as it is to see potting soil in a Starbucks.

On the search for a crucial ingredient for our daily gin and tonic, we had trouble locating the local liquor store. The grocery store (which is on Main Street but you have to enter from the alley) had wine and beer as usual in the US but no gin. The clerk’s directions did not resolve our search. Finally, a second set of directions got us to the ‘General Mercantile Store’ which clearly sold a whole range of family fashions and sewing notions. Once inside we also found a fully stocked Liquor Store. “Pick up a bottle of gin and a sweater for me at the store on your way home.” They also stocked ice fishing equipment but none of the clerks could explain how the strange rig was used.

We found that the local real estate broker also owned and operated the local deli/bistro and the recommended breakfast place sold a full range of ammunition to reflect the diverse interests of the owners.

When customers are scarce then you find a niche market and fill it as a way to maintain your cash flow. Clearly there are few rules in the County to restrict the range of goods offered in any particular business establishment. I guess you should expect that in the free-wheeling state of Montana.

That’s what I am thinking about.

Jon Hall

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