Archive for Thursday, September 27, 2007

Market closing to leave ‘big hole’

September 27, 2007

The phone rang steadily Monday morning at Morses' Market and the question on the minds of most callers was "Are you open?"

The short answer Monday was yes, but the complete answer would add, "Not for much longer."

Storeowners Marge and Ted Morse and their son Jeff were running De Soto's only grocery store this week with a skeleton crew of two evening hour employees. The other 20 employees were laid off last week in anticipation of the store's closing.

The last day would be "Thursday," Marge told a customer checking out.

It's a sad end the Morses didn't anticipate when they bought the store for a second time in 2003. The family store did $87,000 a week at the store when they sold it in 1997, Ted said. Now in a town with what he estimated had 500 more homes, the store's weekly business is about $30,000 less than a decade ago.

For the Morses, that figure suggests something about those who have moved to De Soto professing they were looking for an alternative to Johnson County suburban living and voicing the oft-repeated phase "We don't want to live in another Lenexa."

"In some respects they do," Ted said. "The new people who moved out here, they want everything they had in Lenexa and Overland Park."

"This store just isn't good enough for the new people moving to De Soto."

Their best customers, those who came to the store to fill up shopping carts on weekly shopping trips, were older De Soto families like the Lindens, McDaniels and Gowers, Ted said.

As if to prove Ted's point, Karen McDaniel made perhaps her last trip to the store Monday to fill five bags with groceries from its emptying shelves.

"This was my spot," she said. "I don't like grocery shopping anyway. I like to go and be done with it. I hate to see this place go."

The store's closing is what happens when people don't support local businesses, McDaniel said. As much as it will inconvenience her, the closing will be hardest on the elderly and those without transportation who will have to get groceries from Shawnee, Lenexa, Olathe or Eudora, she said.

Hardship for seniors

De Soto Multi-Service Center manager Jodi Hitchcock said the store's closing could create bigger demand for the Catch-A-Ride program offered out of her office and the two-day-a-week FlexRide bus service offered in De Soto.

"For some people, it is going to create a tremendous difficulty," she said of the closing. "Some people with limited transportation deal with a comfort level of getting out on the highway. Others have no transportation."

The De Soto Multi-Service Center also was losing a supporter, Hitchcock said.

"The Morses were very generous," she said. "I was the only multi-service center in the county with a local grocery store that would make deliveries and put up what they brought for me."

Richard Isaacs, one of two remaining store employees, said he talked to customers Monday who live across Lexington Avenue. The store was their only option for groceries, he said, and there were many others in De Soto like them. Also among the store's regular customers were shoppers visiting elderly parents living alone or in assisted living.

"They'll have to get the shopping list and make a stop before they come to De Soto now," he said. "I can think of about 40 to 45 people who come in every day to buy a little bit.

"It's sad because the community still needs a grocery store. I talk to people in the community, and most of them think someone's going to swoop down and take that store over. It's not going to happen."

Isaacs started working at the De Soto grocery store in its second year of business as a 16-year-old high school junior in 1974. The chain that then owned the store transferred him to Edwardsville and Gardner, before the Morses bought the De Soto market the first time in 1987 and asked him to return.

With his adult life spent in the grocery business, Isaacs is wondering what's next. Large chains won't pay near what he was getting from the Morses, and typically want younger employees, he said.

"The Morses were good to me," he said. "It's just like starting over.

"I'd like to find something around town -- something where I don't have to drive."

Eating lunch Tuesday at the De Soto Senior Center, Wayne Loglisci said the closing would change his shopping patterns. A homebound resident of the Clearview City Apartments south of De Soto, Loglisci depends on FlexRide for his two day a week rides to the Senior Center and a home health professional to purchase his groceries.

The closest store to his apartment is in Eudora, but Loglisci said his home health provider refused to shop there because she would be providing tax dollars in Douglas rather than Johnson County. Now, he said the tax dollars would be leaving De Soto.

"Since the tax rate is so high for my groceries, why not keep it here?" he said.

Lost tax revenue

The city will see a significant loss in sales tax from the store's closing. At De Soto's local 1.75-cent sales tax rate, the city would stand to collect about $51,000 annually from the store.

That's just another reason people should heed the opportunity to shop locally, said De Soto Chamber of Commerce executive director Sara Ritter. In a bedroom community like De Soto where so many residents work in neighboring communities, that can be a hard sale, she said.

"That's one thing we're all guilty of, and that's going out of the community to shop," she said. "This community is historically commuters. We're used to shopping elsewhere for basic needs."

They understood the draw of large chain supermarkets when they repurchased the store four years ago, Ted said. To make the De Soto store more competitive the spent considerable time cleaning it up and invested $80,000 to computerize checkout lanes, he said. They also spent $50,000 to install a deli, which proved unsuccessful.

But the facelift and upgrades didn't change the shopping patterns of De Soto residents. Ted said a loss study last year estimated the store captured 25 percent of the De Soto market. The store would have to capture about 45 percent to survive, he said.

Those leaving town never experienced, and perhaps never needed, the type of personnel service the Morses provided. Among all the phone calls Monday asking if the store was still open, Marge took one from a weekend customer asking that the Morses wrote hold a check she wrote until her Thursday payday.

"We get those all the time," she said. "It won't happen any longer. The big chains won't do that."

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