Longtime Vancouver grocer to close St. Johns IGA

Slumping sales, highway closure hurt Rose Village neighborhood business

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Five years ago, business was looking up for independent Vancouver grocer Scott Kooistra.

But the outlook has changed dramatically for his St. Johns IGA store, which has been facing slumping sales tied to an unsteady economy, a yearlong highway closure and a rush of new discount grocers moving in on his central Vancouver territory. Kooistra is ready to hang up his apron for good, and on Friday he officially announced plans to close his 14,000-square-foot food store at the corner of St. Johns Road and Fort Vancouver Way.

"Our last day of business is going to be Dec. 28," said Kooistra, who owns the store with his wife, Christina.

The couple, who spent many sleepless nights worrying about their livelihood, have listed the nearly 3-acre property and building for sale, asking $750,000.

In the meantime, they are hoping a new idea for the site will pay off until a sale comes through. Kooistra's family has owned and operated the store for 30 years.

"My dad purchased it from Ron Keil in 1983," said Kooistra, who left his senior year of business classes at Eastern Washington University in Cheney to return to Vancouver and help run the business. His dad, Phil Kooistra, changed the store's name, which was formerly a Keil's grocery store, to an IGA.

Phil Kooistra, a longtime grocery executive who had worked as Keil's vice president, brought his four sons — Scott, Greg, Tim and Todd — into the family business.

"My mom kept the books and my grandfather came in every week to help unload freight," Scott Kooistra said.

He and his brother Greg bought out their father in 1995. In 2004, Scott bought out Greg's share of the business.

The St. Johns store continued to do well as an independent through a period of rapid Clark County expansion for chain supermarkets, which made it tough on the area's local "mom-and-pop" operations. From 1999 through 2001, several independently owned grocers were closed countywide, including Thriftway stores, a Red Apple and Battle Ground's Meyer's Marketplace.

But Kooistra survived the county expansion of big grocery chains, such as Walmart, WinCo Foods, Safeway and Fred Meyer, because of the St. Johns IGA's location.

"What helped me is most of those stores were going out to the east of us and to the north," he said. "I wasn't affected."

In 2004, the store caught fire, which caused a month-long setback to clean up the smoke- and water-damaged interior.

Kooistra survived the closure by relying on his father's experience and advice.

"Dad said the main thing is you need to open as quick as you can or people will find other stores," Kooistra said.

His dad's counsel served Kooistra well, helping his business remain as the last of the locally owned stores. His business survived in part by being different, he said.

For example, the store has long carried a variety of specialty ethnic foods and meats for the large immigrant population in the store's Rose Village neighborhood. It also offered more types of meat than other grocery stores, including whole pigs.

Kooistra's efforts to offer customer service paid off big time when the store's nearest competitor, Fred Meyer, moved out of the neighborhood in early 2008 and his store's sales increased to the best he's ever seen for about a one-year period.

The sales boost quickly disappeared as the effects of the recession wore on. Grocery shoppers had suddenly placed low price at the top of their lists.

"It really affected the friendly, service-oriented mom-and-pop stores," Kooistra said, estimating the economy's downturn cost him about 5 percent of his sales.

The IGA store's sales slumped even further — another 17 percent — during a yearlong construction project to build a new overpass at St. Johns Road and state Highway 500, he said. The project cut off the flow of busy Fort Vancouver Way traffic down to a trickle.

"My sales-per-customer went down by between $5 and $6 per customer, which doesn't seem like much, but it's $5,000 a day if you get about 1,000 customers a day," Kooistra said. He added that his store, a part of the IGA network, could never compete with the volume-discount prices of WinCo and Walmart stores.

So Kooistra will quit before the arrival of his newest rival, a Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store under construction on the former Fred Meyer site at Fourth Plain and Grand Boulevard. The store, about a half mile away from the St. Johns IGA, is expected to open this spring.

New business

By then, Kooistra expects to be heading in a new direction, after liquidating all of his store's merchandise and fixtures.

"I am going to open the Vancouver Flea Market," he said.

He plans to open the site to vendors for a fee and operate the business on weekends, said Kooistra, who considered several options to either redevelop his grocery store site or beef up the grocery business and add a pharmacy. All the other alternatives would have meant borrowing big sums of money.

"We decided that it was too risky," Kooistra said.

He is planning a January opening for the flea market business, which will feature sellers of everything from vintage merchandise to household goods.

In the meantime, Kooistra has offered to write letters of recommendation for his 14 employees as they search for new jobs. He wishes things could be different for longtime customers of the St. Johns IGA, especially those without cars.

"I'm torn," he said, "because once you decide to close, you aren't supposed to keep stocking the shelves, but it's the holidays."