And then there was one.
Mitchell shoppers now have a single option for a 24-hour grocery store, with County Fair Food Store carrying the flag in the early morning hours. That comes after the closure of Walmart overnight earlier this summer, and Coborn’s ended its 24-hour service a few years ago, as well.
The changes slow down an already quiet overnight retail scene. Mitchell has County Fair Food Store as its lone 24-hour grocery store, Marlin’s as its lone 24-hour restaurant and has four convenience stores that are open all hours.
Randy Hanssen has been working in the grocery industry in Mitchell for 11 years, and is County Fair’s store manager. Hanssen has noticed a small increase in late night business since Walmart began closing its doors five hours per morning — from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. — on July 6.
“We have seen a small bump, but nothing real significant,” Hanssen said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “When I started in this industry here in Mitchell 11 years ago, everyone was a 24-hour grocery store.”
While Hanssen understands some local shoppers prefer to stock up on their groceries and other miscellaneous items during the midnight hour and into the early morning, he said there are plenty of challenges that come with maintaining around-the-clock operations at a grocery store. A few years ago, Coborn's was also a 24-hour grocery store, but it now opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. Officials from Walmart and Coborn’s did not respond to The Daily Republic’s requests for comment for this story.
The changes are only the latest in the continually shifting retail and shopping landscape in Mitchell, which has seen national retailers like Kmart, JCPenney and Shopko close shop and increased online shopping continue to crunch traditional retailers, even in the grocery space. The community’s workforce shortage in the retail arena is also a continued focus, and Hanssen said it’s a major factor for his grocery store and other outlets.
“The workforce is so tight the way it is, and to find someone to work overnights is the key,” Hanssen said. “But it’s just really tough to find people who are on board with working overnight shifts.”
While Hanssen represents County Fair, he offered some assumptions as to why the two other companies adjusted their hours.
“I don’t think it’s the business they’re after, because you have people working through the night most of the time the way it is, so adding a few cash registers to allow for 24-hour shopping isn’t a big deal,” Hanssen said, noting overnight stock workers and bakers as being some of the employees who typically spend most of the night working at grocery stores. “But finding people who are willing to manage the registers and operations at night is again where things get really hard.”
Mitchell's 24-hour options are not unique among similar South Dakota cities. The Daily Republic researched other East River communities with more than 10,000 people, excluding Sioux Falls, to see what they offered during the overnight hours. In some of those communities — most notably Brandon, Huron and Pierre — there are no grocery stores or restaurants open overnight, and a few gas stations.
Communities like Aberdeen, Watertown and Yankton had the most options, with a Walmart store and another grocery store open 24 hours, along with either a McDonald's or an all-night cafe open, and a handful of gas stations. In the college towns of Brookings and Vermillion, McDonald's is the only all-night food option, with only the drive-thru window open in the early morning hours.
Mitchell has four gas stations open past midnight, which is similar to other regional cities, ranging from as few as two to as many as five. Walmart has 24-hour stores in Aberdeen, Brookings, Watertown and Yankton, but closes nightly in Huron and Pierre.
A local impact
Tina McIntyre, manager of Marlin’s Family Restaurant in Mitchell, can attest to how vital a 24-hour dining option is for a portion of the population, including travelers and truck drivers.
“It’s so important, because we have many truck drivers who haven’t ate a meal for a while. They depend on us to offer a hot, cooked meal,” McIntyre said. "The amount of travelers coming through who are looking to have a sit down meal is also another group of customers we see often.”
Considering there are several manufacturing and production jobs in Mitchell that have overnight shifts — such as Trail King and Graphic Packaging — having access to 24-hour business operations can be a necessity for some local workers to purchase home goods.
McIntyre said there has been a small bump in business due to the overnight changes in hours. Unlike some of the local grocery stores’ staffing problems, McIntyre said she doesn’t have much difficulty keeping the overnight crew fully staffed.
“My night shift employees really like the shift, because they have steady business most nights,” McIntyre said, noting the opportunity for increased tips as a bonus for the night shift crew.
Catherine Cushard is one of the overnight employees who was impacted by Walmart’s change in hours. As an early morning delivery driver, Cushard said her work shift prompts her to primarily grocery shop in the early morning hours around 1 to 3 a.m.
“I use County Fair for my primary grocery shopping store, but if I needed something small and urgent, like cat food, Walmart’s 24 hours were a big perk,” Cushard said in an interview with The Daily Republic.
Regardless of the changes for Coborn’s and Walmart, Cushard hopes the community can continue to hold onto a grocery store that’s always open.
“I really hope we always have a 24-hour grocery store, because I would have to adjust a lot of things to get around it,” Cushard said. “But we’re fortunate that such a good grocery store is still open for 24 hours.”
However, the portion of Mitchell’s graveyard shift employees who were accustomed to the convenience of Walmart being open in case of the need for emergency items, such as pain relievers, small bandages and toilet paper, aren’t completely without options.
Larissa Donaldson is a sales associate at Cubby’s east location at 1000 S. Burr St. Like Cushard, she is concerned about what Mitchell can offer local shoppers in need of emergency items.
“Convenience stores, such as ourselves, really only have the bare necessities and not the type of products a grocery store like Walmart and County Fair offer,” Donaldson said.
But within South Dakota’s rural retail landscape, Mitchell continues to serve as a hub and has options overnight that smaller towns in South Dakota do not, because the latest time retail businesses are open is 7 or 8 p.m.
In addition to the struggles of maintaining a steady overnight work crew, Hanssen alluded to the operational costs of keeping a large building open all day and night as another factor that could be contributing to the decline in 24-hour retail and grocery stores.
At County Fair, roughly seven employees make up the total number of workers to be considered fully staffed during the overnight hours, according to Hanssen.
“It’s not cheap to heat and cool a large store,” Hanssen said. “And a corporate store like Walmart has likely been conducting studies of the costs versus rewards of keeping the 24-hour services available, so I’m willing to bet they have done thorough studies into whether it was a wise business move to close for a few hours of the night.”
Although the night crew accounts for only seven of the 150 employees at County Fair, Hanssen said it’s been the most challenging shift to keep filled throughout his time as the store director.
“There are very few, if any, applicants that have desired to work the overnight shift,” Hanssen said. “And if someone calls in sick before the overnight shift, it’s extremely difficult to find a replacement for that night.”