Rural retail struggling
MOVILLE, Iowa -- Carol Logan's women's clothing shop, located on the southern end of this small town, just off busy U.S. Highway 20, regularly draws customers from miles around.
"We're a destination store,'' says Logan, owner of Carol's Corner, which carries a wide selection of affordable fashions, accessories and gifts. "We get a lot of people in from surrounding areas.''
Still, she's noticed a sharp drop off in traffic within the town itself since opening the store 20 years ago.
"Our local people, so many of them work in Sioux City,'' she says. "They naturally do a lot of their shopping in Sioux City...''
According to U.S. Census data, 76 percent of Moville residents work outside of the city, with the vast majority making the approximate 15-mile commute west to Sioux City, home of a large and growing retail sector. Logan herself operates another Carol's Corner store at Marketplace, one of Sioux City's largest shopping centers.
A study released this month by Iowa State University suggests the proximity to the metro area has taken a toll on Moville merchants. The report shows Moville's taxable retail sales plunged more than 43 percent between 2000 and 2007, the fourth largest percentage loss among Iowa cities with populations above 1,000 for the period.
The three cities with greater declines, Buffalo, 57 percent, Shenandoah, 52 percent, and Wilton, 44 percent, are all outside this region.
Meghan O'Brien, an extension program specialist at ISU, authored the study, analyzing retail sales data compiled by the state Department of Revenue.
Moville's taxable retail sales fell more than $5 million, from 11.9 million in 2000 to 6.8 million in 2007. That, despite the city's population increasing an estimated 2.8 percent, to 1,481, during the period.
Two recent developments on Main Street threaten to further erode the city's taxable sales.
Last week, the owners of Country Foods, the town's only grocery store, decided it would be too costly to rebuild their now-closed store, which was gutted by a fire in April. In an unrelated decision, the town's only hardware store, located next to County Foods, also announced plans to call it quits.
Trends don't bode well
Moville's sharp decline in taxable retail sales since 2000 comes as a surprise to pharmacist Russ Spotts, who has owned the Moville Pharmacy for 28 years. Accounting for inflation in the medical sector, Spotts said he has seen a threefold increase in the prescription volume at his Main Street business in recent years.
"I couldn't exist if it wasn't for the local people supporting the store,'' Spotts says. "It's not easy being situated that close to Sioux City, but the business people that are here, they try hard to serve the community. I know they do.''
For the last eight years, Spotts also has operated a pharmacy in Ida Grove, a Northwest Iowa city that reported a more than 31 percent drop in taxable retail sales from 2000 to 2007. Statewide, that ranked 19th highest among Iowa cities during that period.
In all, 17 area cities landed on O'Brien's list of the 100 cities with the largest losses in retail sales. Like Ida Grove, most of the others are county seats towns in rural areas that have experienced population losses. (See breakout).
"Those trends are hard to fight,'' O'Brien says. "You don't have the critical mass to support those businesses.''
Like Moville, smaller cities close to large urban areas fight to keep shoppers at home, she notes.
"There's too broad of a mix in a metro area and too many choices,'' she says. "Even with $4 a gallon gas, it seems to be cost effective for them to shop in a larger area.''
While food purchased for consumption at home are not subject to the state sales tax, O'Brien says grocery stores usually are the lifeblood of small towns, helping drive more traffic to main streets. If not replaced, the loss of Moville's grocery store is "only going to make the issue worse, effect sales more dramatically,'' she says.
The closing of Moville's grocery and hardware stores would be the latest blow to the retail community, which lost its only new car dealer and an adjacent used car lot three years ago.
Carol Logan's clothing store is located in a small strip mall just west of the former Condon Ford's showroom, service center and outdoor lots, which remain vacant. Previously, that site had been home to a lumber yard owned by Logan's husband, Bob, but it closed years ago due to declining sales.
Some defy odds
O'Brien's report shows suburban Iowa cities gained the most retail sales, as their populations swelled in recent years, she said. Fast-growing Des Moines area suburbs, like Altoona, Grimes, Pleasant Hill and Waukee dominate the top 10 list of the Iowa cities with the largest increase in sales from 2000 to 2007.
The highest ranked Northwest Iowa city was George at No. 25. Merchants in the Lyon County city reported a $2.6 million increase in taxable retail sales, from nearly $7 million in 2000 to $9.6 million in 2007.
The growth in the small city of about 1,000 outpaced larger, faster-growing cities nearby, including Orange City, which ranked two spots behind George with more than 35 percent increase in taxable retail sales over the seven-year period.
Judd Reifers and his wife, Laura, moved to George in 1998 to buy the town's only grocery store, Total Stop Food Store, which previously had gone through a series of changes in ownership. Since then, the couple has experienced an increase in sales every year.
"We bought a home in town,'' Judd Reifers says. "I think the stability of knowing that when we came to town, we were staying, let everybody know we were going to make it.''
The Des Moines Bureau's Fred Love contributed to this report.
(ONLINE ONLY) To view a detailed report, from Iowa State University, on taxable retail sales for your city or county, log on to:
Retail winners, losers
A recent report by an Iowa State University economics professor lists the 100 cities with the largest decreases in taxable retail sales, and the 100 cities with the biggest increases in sales, from 2000 to 2007. Below are Northwest Iowa cities on each list, their statewide ranking and the percentage change in their sales during the seven years.
25. George 37.38
27. Orange City 35.86
32. Sanborn 30.85
36. Arnolds Park 27.76
39. Sergeant Bluff 25.39
41. Hull 24.73
51. Odebolt 18.31
53. Sioux Center 17.16
64. Emmetsburg 12.40
72. Spencer 8.34
75. Lake Park 7.19
77. Spirit Lake 6.63
87. Le Mars 3.68
96. Storm Lake 1.27
97. Laurens 1.08
4. Moville -43.06
8. Woodbine -40.90
17. Rockwell City -30.98
19. Ida Grove -30.43
20. Onawa -30.28
31. Sac City -27.10
32. Estherville -26.63
38. Sloan -24.60
46. Mapleton -23.65
56. Sibley -21.04
65. Alton -19.28
71. Paullina -18.30
77. Cherokee -16.68
88. Rock Rapids -14.55
93. Kingsley -12.67
94. Denison -12.42
97. Rock Valley -11.63
Note: Cities with populations greater than 1,000. Source: Analysis of Iowa Department of Revenue data by Iowa State University economics professor Meghan O'Brien.
From the Sioux City Journal - June 22, 2008