A friend who moved from Billings to the Bozeman area a few years ago says one advantage of living in the Gallatin Valley, besides being so close to some pretty good skiing, is a tantalizing variety of grocery stores where he feels like a kid in a candy store.
My friend used to complain about the lack of variety available when he lived and shopped in the Billings Heights. But that source of irritation disappeared now that he has a Gallatin County ZIP code.
In Bozeman, shopping choices include the Rosauers store on the west end of town, a new Safeway store that opened recently and the same big players that dominate the Billings market. The Bozeman Food Co-op has a loyal following, and a number of independent stores are still ringing up sales.
In Billings, Walmart/Sam’s Club, Albertson’s, Costco and IGA lead the traditional grocery market, although the Good Earth Market has carved out a nice niche downtown, and discount grocer Mr. Thrifty opened a second location earlier this year. Meanwhile, fans of natural and organic food welcomed the recent opening of the Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage store on 24th Street West.
OK, so Billings shoppers aren’t exactly scrambling for cabbages like they used to do in the Soviet Union. But more than a few Magic City residents have wondered why places like Missoula and Bozeman seem to have more variety when it comes to grocery shopping.
Rosauers entered the Bozeman market during the early 2000s, and by all accounts the store is well received. A few months ago, the local rumor mill was buzzing that Rosauers had set its sights on Billings.
Jeff Philipps, chief executive of Rosauers, splashed some cold water on that rumor in response to a telephone inquiry. Rosauers, a Spokane, Wash.-based chain with stores in four states, is simply too far away to make a Billings store feasible, Philipps said.
Modern supermarkets stock thousands of items, many of them perishable. And because of fierce competition, a lot of products are sold at a small markup. A large-volume, low-margin business needs an efficient transportation and distribution system to turn a profit, and Billings is apparently just too far away for Rosauers to make it work.
By contrast, Natural Grocers, based in Colorado, has spread its footprint across a dozen states, including Montana. So far, transportation hasn’t been a limiting factor, according to Nancy Flynn, marketing director for Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage.
“Transportation is always part of the equation, as we have a large inventory of items to offer in all our stores, and we place the same products, for the most part, in all our stores,” Flynn wrote in an email.
“We do not have one single captive distribution center. Distribution isn’t something that has stopped us from opening in new areas,” she said.
Flynn also said Natural Grocers competes well in markets served by Whole Foods and other upscale grocers.
So take heart, Billings shoppers. Your choices at the grocery store are steadily getting better. And there's plenty of cabbage to go around.