WILLSBORO - Willsboro's largest grocery store is reinventing itself to try and stay in business.
The store formerly known as Country IGA has switched suppliers in an effort to bring back customers with lower prices, thereby preserving an ongoing commitment to its community.
"We made the decision when we realized the community wasn't supporting the store," said store owner Mark McKenna. "Obviously, our prices were too high."
Business at the store slowed to the point where it could no longer continue doing business under its previous methods. The number of customers dwindled and emptying shelves were left under stocked.
"It sent a signal to many of our customers that we were closing," McKenna said, "but we weren't."
The problem, explained McKenna, was with its distributor, whose exorbitant mark-ups on grocery items kept the store from offering competitive prices. After a thorough search, he discovered another supplier that would offer similar products for considerably less money.
AG New England, a cooperative that serves more than 600 stores throughout the northeast, began serving the Willsboro store at the end of January, bringing products made under the Shur-Fine label.
"The customer perception so far is that it's a better product," said Tracy Spooner, store manager, noting that Shur-Fine has higher standards in its product specifications.
McKenna said by getting products through AG New England, prices at his store were cut 20 to 40 percent across the board. Customers, impressed with the new prices, are returning to the store in greater numbers and buying more items.
As a result, the store is essentially reborn, he said. Shelves that had gone nearly bare are now 95 percent restocked. Since it will no longer carry products with the IGA label, the store is in need of a new name and is polling its customers to come up with one.
McKenna said other stores in neighboring communities are also going through tough times, but emphasized that it had less to do with the IGA label and more to do with distributor mark-ups.
Losing the Willsboro store would have eliminated the community's main source for many groceries, as well as the 14 jobs retained there. The store has a record of supporting school and community programs and selling produce from local farmers.
Though introducing a new product line has been a tremendous undertaking for the store, the decision to switch may prove to be the difference for whether it stays in business.
"I have answered the community's wants," said McKenna. "Now we need the community's support to make the store work from here on out."