Nearly three years ago, Billings residents filled the parking lot of the South Side State Avenue IGA to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and the store's new local ownership.
But after the Mexican food, music and games ended, customers apparently took their shopping dollars elsewhere.
Now the South Side grocery store is closing.
“I’m at a loss. The sales have been declining on the previous owners and continue to decline with me,” Shayne Meskimen said. “So it’s time to get out while I can still pay my vendors and my employees.”
The liquidation sale at the neighborhood grocery at 4220 State Ave. will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week for two or three weeks, he said.
On Friday, Meskimen and his wife, Dani, announced their decision to a dozen employees. He said he’s hardly slept since that announcement.
After buying the business in 2010, the owners painted the interior, spent a month figuring out how to lower prices, brought back the IGA sales, installed new meat cases and carried ethnic foods.
“If you shopped my sales, used my ads, my bonus buys, you won’t save a nickel at Wal-Mart,” he said.
When asked where the disabled or the poor who lack adequate transportation will shop, Meskimen said he doesn’t know.
“That’s a tough one because there are a lot of people who walk to this location, but you need the total community support to make this work,” he said.
Sam’s Club and a newly constructed Albertsons store across the railroad tracks were open before they bought the South Side IGA and that competition hurt, he said.
But cutthroat profit margins and lean economic times have pushed even large grocery store chains into a cycle of sales, mergers and closures.
Supervalu in Minnesota is selling off the Albertsons chain, among many other retail properties, in a deal that should be completed by mid-March.
And recent internal memos at Wal-Mart labeled the retail Goliath’s slow February sales a “total disaster.” Net sales for the quarter ran about $1.7 billion lower than expected, and executives blamed late tax refund checks and paycheck-to-paycheck spending by financially strapped customers.
Dressed in interview clothes, Ramie Schmidt of Billings walked up to the South Side IGA on Monday morning hoping to get hired for a job he’d applied for four months ago. Then he spotted the liquidation sign.
“They said they’d call me, and I kept calling and calling,” he said.
The longtime neighborhood grocery, built by Billings businessman Bob Mills, used to be owned by Van’s Inc.
The nearby 3Gs at 4410 State Ave. is building a new store, but that is not a grocery store, Meskimen said. The 3Gs convenience store that should open in a month will be four times larger.
Meanwhile, the Meskimens will focus on their Lockwood IGA store, which they’ve run for 21 years.
They are starting a major renovation project there that should be completed in June, including building a new storefront and an addition to increase their space by 22 percent. Changes include new energy-efficient lights, efficient computer-driven compressors and frozen-food coolers with almost twice as many display doors. Improvements include a produce cooler that may be unique in Montana, said Meskimen, who started his career as a teenager bagging groceries.
“The variety will dramatically increase on fresh produce,” he said. “We’ll be there in Lockwood forever.”