If the absence of longtime North Platte retail fixtures like JCPenney and Herberger’s bothered you at Christmastime, then last week’s news that Shopko is teetering nationally (if not here) should be alarming indeed.
“Shop local,” of course, is a time-worn cliché. It’s also time-honored. Especially in small or medium-sized towns like ours and our neighbors.
So that should be our first reaction. If we want to stop the bleeding, we need to patronize the stores we have, no matter who owns them.
There are other lessons we need to remember, and cannot afford any longer to forget.
First, we cannot expect national retail firms with headquarters in faraway cities to simply fill the void. We would welcome them with open arms, make no mistake. Our Chamber of Commerce and economic development officials are earnestly working to convince one or several that North Platte is too well placed, given its geography, transportation and population, to pass up the chance to build loyal, reliable customer bases here.
All that said, those other brick-and-mortar chains are facing many of the same nationwide challenges that killed Herberger’s parent company in 2018 and led Penney’s, despite its century-long North Platte history, to give up its last Nebraska store west of Kearney in 2017.
If one or more national chains do set up shop here, we must make it worth their while, with our friendly smiles and our shopping dollars.
But we cannot expect others to volunteer to fill North Platte’s empty storefronts. Especially when every out-of-town shopping trip we make and every online order we place, necessary as some of the goods we seek might be, signals that there’s no profit in their investing here.
If we value local choice, we must be ready to provide it ourselves. That’s the second lesson.
That means encouraging small, existing local retailers to grow — through our patronage and assistance — and helping others to get started.
North Platte’s historic downtown buildings weren’t filled by major national chains when built a century and more ago. Yes, Penney’s was here then, but it wasn’t yet what it became.
The businesses that sprouted and blossomed downtown were planted by individuals. A few, like W.J. O’Connor and the Hirschfeld brothers, came from other Nebraska or regional cities and stayed. But most were local.
Our western Nebraska ancestors couldn’t, and didn’t, count on folks “back East” to save them. And neither can we.
The final lesson admittedly cuts both ways, as far as North Platte is concerned. But it has led a few of our smallest regional communities, thus far successfully, to set up and maintain cooperative grocery stores.
Of course it’s attractive to get out of town to shop, for recreation if not necessity. North Platte long has been such a destination for our neighbors, and our recent retail losses have also been theirs.
But when we ourselves are tempted to hit the road, we also must ask: Is it really cheaper — when one counts up the cost of gas, meals and even motels — to buy in Kearney, Grand Island, Lincoln, Omaha or Denver when we could buy the things we seek here?
If we don’t answer “no” more often, we can’t expect to broaden our local retail palette. And we won’t be able to keep what’s left.
As always, it’s our choice. Don’t expect others to bail us out. It’s up to us.