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Rural Retail Realities

by Sep 18, 2023Magazine, Retail

The shopping experience in Togiak is not unlike what customers are accustomed to at urban retailers. Shoppers browse shelves and then check out using modern point-of-sale technology.

Alaska Commercial Co.

Gasoline in Alaska villages can cost upwards of $10 per gallon. That’s the case in Marshall, a small town of just under 500 people on the lower Yukon River—except twice a year when Willie Fitka, general manager of the Marshall Enterprises store, drops the price, selling at cost.

Folks come from as far as St. Mary’s and Russian Mission on snowmachines, boats, and ATVs to take advantage of the lower fuel price. Villagers fill their tanks for an extra hunting trip, a trip upriver, or just extra fuel for the next season. Fitka likes to deplete the older gas from the tanks before the next refill of newer, higher octane gas, giving his customers a deal in the process.

Marshall Enterprises, the smaller of two stores in the village, is the only place for residents and visitors to buy fuel. It’s also a place to get a free cup of coffee while shopping.

Fitka started working at the store as a clerk when he was 17. He’s managed the store since 2007. At one point his father, Willie Jr., managed the other store in town. When his dad passed, Fitka had the option to fill his dad’s position, but he chose to stay at Marshall Enterprises. He’s been there twenty-four years.

In 2019 the City of Marshall purchased the business to maintain the services in the village. The city council kept Fitka on, giving him full charge of the business.

The tiny shop—a 20-foot by 24-foot building with a second building attached by a narrow hallway—doesn’t have much room for overflow. When the barge comes up the Yukon River or when a bypass mail shipment shows up, the hall and aisles serve as extra storage.

In the back, the stockroom overflows when shipments arrive by barge or bypass mail, so inventory must be stored in the aisles.

Willie Fitka

“We’re just used to it,” Fitka says.

Additional shipping containers outside hold stock that can withstand the weather, such as dry goods, tarps, nets, and rain gear.

Fitka does almost all of his banking electronically. He sends for change when needed via registered mail. Without a local bank, the store cashes payroll and government checks for residents, particularly elders. There is no fee for locals who often deposit much of the check into their store credit account.

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June 2024

The Marshall inventory changes by season. In winter there will be more snowmachine parts and winter gear; in the summer the parts shift to ATV needs.

Stocking snowmachine, ATV, and boat parts at rural stores could mean survival for locals in most small villages. These are the realities of retail in Alaska’s remotest communities, whether stores are locally owned or part of a statewide chain.

One of the features of the Nome AC store is a deli with freshly prepared sandwiches.

Alaska Commercial Co.

“That’s the local hangout. People will just sit for hours to soak up the sun and say hi to everybody that comes in, or, if they’re meeting someone to go berry picking, they meet at the bench.”

—Jacque Malaney, Store Manager, Togiak AC

Togiak Team

Jacque Malaney, store manager at the Alaska Commercial Company (AC) in Togiak, worked with corporate offices to add commercial fishing gear and supplies to the regular inventory. It could mean losing a week’s work if a fishing boat must divert to Dillingham for a propeller.

“That not only affects that fisherman, it affects his assistant, which affects both of their families. It then reverberates where it affects the village. It actually affects a lot of us when a fisherman is not able to fish for a week during the height of season,” Malaney says.

With the right parts in the store, Malaney says she can get them back on the water in two hours.

Malaney and her husband, Ron, moved to Togiak (a community of around 800 north of Dillingham on the southwest coast of the state) ten years ago to manage the store. Ron serves as a part-time welder in his free time, working on boats and other equipment after hours. The demand for welding in the small fishing village is so high that the couple brings a welder to the village for two and a half months each summer.

In the winter the store supplies ice fishing gear, augers, and sleds to pull behind snowmachines.

The Malaneys are a team. “We basically split the duties right down the middle. He is far better with numbers and percentages and all that kind of stuff. Whereas I am much better with intermingling and getting to know the people of the village and what their needs are and providing that service. I’m more of the face. And he’s more of the brains, I guess,” Jacque says.

The Togiak AC is one of the chain’s thirty-three statewide locations. AC’s history predates the purchase of Alaska in 1867, when the departing Russian-American Company sold its mercantile interests to US entrepreneurs. The chain is now owned by The North West Company, which likewise traces its roots to the Russian-American Company’s British counterpart in Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The humble Togiak store is a social hub of sorts. Just outside the entrance on the covered porch is a long, wooden bench. Residents sit on the bench greeting their neighbors, sharing news about who had a baby, how the fishing is going, whose ATV is broken down. Jacque can’t recall a time the bench was empty.

“That’s the local hangout. People will just sit for hours to soak up the sun and say hi to everybody that comes in, or, if they’re meeting someone to go berry picking, they meet at the bench,” she says. “I wish I had a little coffee shop out there. Because, you know, people sit in a coffee shop chatting, and it’s the same concept. They hang out at the bench and just catch up with each other.”

Air and Water

Shipments arrive at the store as in most coastal and river villages: by barge, air freight, or bypass mail with US Postal Service. Bypass mail, which allows freight to “bypass” the post office and ship as freight on other carriers, is less expensive than air freight, but it is not as predictable. If weather delays a flight, the cargo gets backed up at the last hub.

Most planes that fly into Togiak are Cessna 207s or Caravans. Bypass freight must fit around the mail and any passengers on the planes. Larger planes used to serve the community, bringing cargo on pallets, but the rough airstrip and economic challenges have left Togiak with the smaller planes.

Pallets that used to come in on the larger planes are now broken into smaller loads, changing the nature of retail goods—particularly frozen consumables.

Dave Harvey, manager of the Point Hope AC store, transports goods from St. Michael to Stebbins on the shore of Norton Sound.

Alaska Commercial Co.

“We can’t carry ice cream because somehow it comes in completely melted about 80 percent of the time, and you can’t live on that kind of margin,” Ron says.

Barges wait for high tide to come into Togiak. When a barge does show up, it could be in the middle of the night. No matter when it shows up, “it’s all hands on deck,” Jacque says. It’s a community effort. Everything must come off before the tide goes back out.

Togiak also serves the village of Twin Hills across the water. Folks come by boat in the summer. AC employees pick up shoppers at the shore and return them to their boats with their goods. In the winter when the bay is frozen, villagers snowmachine across, pulling sleds to stock up on supplies.

The Malaneys also support art projects and events at the school. AC pays for the supplies, and store volunteers work with different age groups over the course of the school year. Jacque’s favorite project this year was string art forming the shape of Alaska with a small heart over Togiak.

A shipment just arrived in Marshall, but pallets of soda pop must wait until the ME store can scrounge some storage space.

Willie Fitka

The Marshall Enterprises store serves as the hardware store, snowmachine and ATV parts store, and subsistence outfitter in addition to providing groceries.

Willie Fitka

Arctic Handover

Just north of the Arctic Circle and far to the west on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, Dave and Heather Harvey work in the Point Hope AC. Dave is the store manager and his wife, Heather, is the front end manager.

“We came up together. And we’ve been in stores together since we started,” Dave says.

The Harveys have worked in St. Michael, Gambell, and Pilot Station. They came to the Point Hope store when AC purchased the business in March from Tikigaq village corporation.

“We’ll get one barge delivery this year. I don’t know whether it’ll be up to two next year. And it’ll be the first one for us here in Point Hope [AC], of course. I think we’re going to get that in August, and it’ll be a couple containers. Mostly furniture, large appliances, stuff like that,” Harvey says.

Point Hope keeps a supply of appliances such as microwaves, stoves, washers, freezers. It could take months for appliances to ship, so having a supply on hand for the community is important.

Freezers are also vital inventory. If a resident’s freezer goes out, an entire season of food is at stake. There is no time to wait for a shipment.

Freezers larger than 9 cubic feet are not permitted as air freight due to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on refrigerant chemicals, so large freezers come by barge. Most rural stores cater to their community needs.

“We stock more winter gear than we had in Pilot Station [a village on the lower Yukon River], for instance, because it’s colder longer here. Our mix of oils and stuff like that are a little different because there’s more winter weather here than in some of the southern parts of Alaska. So you end up selling more snowmachine oil and other things, just small things like that. But you just have to know your market and listen to your customers,” Harvey says.

The current building “is getting old and tired.” AC plans to build a replacement store in two years or so. Harvey believes the new construction will most likely incorporate the storage needs for the store, including coolers and freezers.

“It will be new and fresh for the community,” Harvey says.

The Marshall Enterprises store serves as the hardware store, snowmachine and ATV parts store, and subsistence outfitter in addition to providing groceries.

Willie Fitka

Strait Goods

Mike McNally manages the Nome AC. McNally has been with AC for twenty-six years.

The Nome AC is one of the five largest in the chain, and it’s one of two grocery stores along with two convenience stores in Nome. McNally says competition is good for residents. If one store is out of something, the other might have it.

Further, “Nome has fifteen surrounding villages, and we supply groceries for community members and all those villages,” McNally says.

Customers can call in their order or use an online system launched last year. The items are shipped out daily via small plane, but one destination is accessible by helicopter only.

On Little Diomede, an island in the Bering Strait just east of the International Date Line, a village of eighty people depends on the Diomede Native Store.

Steven Ahkinga runs the store. He grew up in the village and started working as a clerk; he’s been managing the store for more than a decade.

Ahkinga orders inventory for the store via fax through Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association, which works as a distribution contact for multiple rural stores in the state.

Diomede’s food used to arrive by plane during winter on a runway plowed out on the ice. Now—due to thinning sea ice—shipments, mail, and passengers arrive via helicopter from Nome. The villagers all know Mike and Zack, the two pilots with Pathfinder Aviation who venture more than an hour each way over Arctic waters to reach the island.

The original store building was getting old and hard to maintain, so it was demolished and everything in the store was transferred to the village church until a new store can be constructed. The timeline on the new building is vague.

“Probably not this year,” Ahkinga says.

Inventory is mostly canned goods and dry goods such as flour and sugar. There are no refrigerated items or fresh produce in stock. Diomede can be weathered in for long periods, so keeping the store stocked with food is imperative.

While the store doesn’t take personal checks, they do cash payroll checks. Ahkinga says the residents will usually spend their entire check on food.

The store is the hub for announcements, catching up with neighbors, and general news. Ahkinga spends a lot of time listening to his neighbors share stories and vent when they need to. It’s an important job when the town is so small and everybody knows everyone.

Ahkinga says with a chuckle, “I just stand there and listen.”

Alaska Business June 2024 cover
In This Issue
Delivering Anchorage's Promise
June 2024
Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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