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Know your niche

IT’S A BUSY FRIDAY MORNING at South Central MFA Agri Services in Mountain Grove, Mo. Country music plays softly in the background as em­ployees ring up orders of bagged feed, boots and salt for customers gearing up for an upcoming snow. The weather isn’t the sole reason for the line at the counter, though.

“I’ve been here for about a month,” Manager Dustin DeVore said, “and as far as I can tell, it’s pretty much always like this. I ran the numbers for the month of January [the previous month at press time] and we averaged about 180 tickets a day.”

DeVore became manager of the Mountain Grove location in January after longtime manager Darren Scheets was promoted to another position within the company. DeVore previously managed the Marshfield and Ash Grove lo­cations, served as a livestock consultant and supervised the warehouse in Ash Grove early in his career.

Once an area of the country primarily dedicated to the dairy industry, the farms in the region have had to transform to stay in business. Mountain Grove MFA has changed right along with them. Agriculture here is now mainly centered around beef cattle, though there are goats, sheep and swine, too, DeVore said.

“When the dairies began going out of business, we really had to refocus ev­erything going forward,” said Kelly Warner, who has worked for the company for almost 19 years. “We had to go into a different atmosphere than we were comfortable with—things like jams, jellies, toys, clothing. Stepping out of our comfort zone has been a little crazy, but it’s definitely benefited us.”

Instead of large-ticket sales, the store needed to bring more foot traffic through the door for survival. Items such as toys, sleds, Carhartt gear and food products provided that opportunity. When farmers come in for a bag of feed or seed, they often leave with a package of Burgers’ Smokehouse meat sticks for the field later. And in a community of fewer than 5,000 people, this inventory diversification helps Mountain Grove MFA bring in other customers from the community who may not be farmers.

When the store’s employees began to see the drop in dairy sales, one of the first areas they expanded into was fishing tackle.

“It was an idea William [Hicks, assistant manager] had, and we tried it,” Warner said. “The other day, we had people actually drive here from St. James in the snow and slush to pick up some of our supplies.”

An avid fisherman himself, Hicks said he knew there might be a niche for these products. What started as a small end-cap on one of the aisles eventually grew to an entire wall.

“Mountain Grove may have more fisherman per capita than anywhere else in the state,” Hicks said. “We have a lot of people who come in just for tackle. Last year, we did $9,000 in fishing supplies. That’s quite a bit when each item ranges typically be­tween $1.50 to $3.00.”

Recognizing these kinds of trends in the community certainly helps. When former manager Scheets saw the Twisted X brand of shoes gaining popularity, he contacted the supplier to figure out how the store could begin carrying them. Conversely, when a supplier no longer offered a popular grilling sauce, Hicks went straight to the manufacturer to keep it on the shelves.

“It’s a different market,” Warner said. “It takes a lot of little ticket sales to make up for some of the dairy business we lost, but we don’t dive into a product all at once. We try it out and see if it sells. For example, we saw these peanuts at a trade show.”

She gestures to a rack next to the counter displaying several flavors.

“When farmers are out in the field, sometimes they don’t know when their next meal will be,” she continued. “These and the chocolate-covered coffee beans have gone over well, whereas the chocolate-covered blueberries and cherries haven’t sold so well.”

It’s sometimes trial-and-error, Warner said, but when they find something that works, they order more. Most of their wares are discovered at trade shows, like the MFA Buyer’s Market and the West Plains Veterinary show.

“The entire industry has changed so much. Even our vaccines have changed,” she added. “When I first started, we had 20-plus different vaccine vendors; now we have only four major ones. We’ve had to keep up with that and learn about all the different products. Everything has changed, and we’ve had to adapt with it. Marketing-wise, we just had to know our niche.”

As busy as the retail store is, catching a lull in the warehouse is also rare. Vehicles line the loading dock awaiting orders. Though he hasn’t been there long, DeVore said the store was going through two to three semi-loads a week of bagged feed at the time, making up approximately 25-30 percent of the business. He estimated farm supply and seed make up another 25-30 percent. Seasoned warehouse supervisor Mark Jar­rett, a 23-year employee, said business has picked up over the last several years.

“What orders we’re filling depends on the season,” Jarrett said. “Right now, we’re handling a lot of feed and hay because it’s been a rough winter. We actually sold the last of our hay this morning, but we’ll switch over to seed really quickly in the next couple of weeks.”

It may be Mountain Grove MFA Agri Services that has the right products and ser­vices to keep customers coming through the door, but DeVore credits the employees for the success of the business.

“I really think it’s the continuity of the employee base that sets this location apart,” DeVore said. “They know our customers and their families, have broad knowledge of our products and they use that knowledge to help our customers. That’s really what it’s all about.”

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