For nearly 18 years, Wal-Mart has been the grocer, pharmacist, hardware store and one-stop shopping center of choice for many in this Fairfield County town and nearby communities.
But just more than a week ago, the international retail giant announced plans to close the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the U.S. 321 Bypass along with 268 other stores nationwide. After Thursday, many local shoppers will need to drive elsewhere, and current Wal-Mart employees will lose their jobs.
James Stevenson, a resident of the Lebanon community six miles from Winnsboro, has been shopping at the Wal-Mart since it opened in 1998. On Thursday, he loaded several bags of groceries in his truck at the store near Fairfield Central High School.
“This is really going to have an effect on this town, with the few jobs that are being lost, and then with convenience,” Stevenson said. “We have more elderly that shop here, because it’s right in the city limits, and that means a whole lot.”
Bobby Young, 69, a lifelong Winnsboro resident, said he shops at the Wal-Mart nearly every day. He couldn’t fathom the store closing nor could he understand the business decision behind it. “I haven’t ever come over here and this place wasn’t packed. You can’t hardly get a buggy.”
A couple of petition drives have been started demanding that Wal-Mart remain open, or at least delay its closing.
Concern about senior citizens
The company said it reached out to leaders in the local communities where the closings are occurring to warn them of Wal-Mart’s plans. But Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy, a physician, said he learned about the Wal-Mart closing from his nurse, who heard about it on the news.
Gaddy, who has held the position for 30 years, said the store employs about 300 workers, making it a significant employer in the local market. In November, Fairfield County’s unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, the ninth highest in South Carolina.
The mayor and others emphasized the impact the store closing will have on the elderly, who patronize Wal-Mart’s pharmacy because the prices are lower.
Mary Mason, who “Lord willing” will turn 94 in June, said she coordinates her shopping at the Winnsboro Wal-Mart with her doctor visits in town, traveling 17 miles from her home in Ridgeway.
“That way, I could do a little shopping for goodies and make one trip do for all,” she said. “I have to depend on somebody to bring me, so it ain’t much I can do.”
Marsha Hinson, who describes herself as a senior citizen, said she shopped at the Winnsboro Wal-Mart once a month, making the 15-mile trip from Great Falls rather than driving 25 miles to the Wal-Mart in Lancaster or 20 miles to the Killian Road Wal-Mart in Richland County.
“Every time I’ve come down here, it’s always been a good crowd,” Hinson said. “I’ve never seen the parking lot bare – never.”
Hinson, who was traveling with a friend, said she’ll switch her business to the store in Lancaster. “For the people who live around here, I don’t know,” she said.
While the store’s closing will inconvenience many shoppers, some Winnsboro stores said they expect to see an increase in business. For many, that will be a reversal from when Wal-Mart opened.
“Whenever a Wal-Mart comes to town, ... it affects all the other businesses in town, such as the hardware store, the gift shop, small local grocery stores,” Gaddy said.
Before Wal-Mart’s arrival, Winnsboro had two grocery stores: a Bi-Lo and a Food Lion, Gaddy noted.
The Food Lion was located a couple of miles down the road from the Wal-Mart, but it eventually closed and the building in Fairfield Square remains vacant. A Bi-Lo remains open just down U.S. 321 from Wal-Mart, but the area has lost several other businesses, including its Belk store, Goody’s, a lady’s apparel shop and a Wendy’s restaurant, though nobody seems quite sure why.
The town has lost some population, statistics show. Since the 2000 Census, the population in Winnsboro, the county seat, is down by about 5 percent. The median income has risen from $25,000 in 2000 to $30,600 in 2013, but the state’s median income is more than $44,000.
Will local businesses expand?
With the loss of Wal-Mart, local merchants will have to expand their inventories to offer hunting and fishing gear, which is popular in the area, Gaddy said, or locals will have to drive to Killian Road.
Winnsboro still has a CVS store/pharmacy and a longstanding, locally owned drug store, Price’s Drugs, located in the downtown district. Pharmacist Carrie Baker, a Winnsboro native who said the Wal-Mart closing shocked her, said Price’s has received calls from Wal-Mart customers wanting to transfer their prescriptions. Price’s also received at least one call from a pharmacy technician looking for a job.
“Everybody’s panicking right now,” said Baker, who went to work at Price’s 16 years ago after finishing her education at the University of South Carolina.
But they shouldn’t be, she said. Wal-Mart shut down some small businesses when it opened in Winnsboro. While its leaving will also have an impact, she said it won’t be fatal.
Price’s will help pick up some of the prescription needs in town, Baker said. There also could be other benefits in the offing, too.
“We’re hoping that another grocery store might come in,” Baker said. “You can look on Main Street, there’s a bunch of empty buildings. I think we’ll see a lot more people downtown. There are a few good specialty shops, but, hopefully, we might get some more.”
William Broome, manager of the Winnsboro Builders Supply True Value hardware store downtown, said local business people had to adjust when Wal-Mart came to town. At the time, he expanded his inventory to carry items Wal-Mart didn’t.
Now, businesses will have to do a “reverse adjustment,” he said, adding items Wal-Mart once sold, but will no longer after Thursday.
“I’m sure we’re not going to be able to furnish everything Wal-Mart has – I don’t have the finances or the building space to do it. But, I’ll fill in what slack spots I can. Hopefully, somebody will come in and fill the void as far as clothing and groceries and things like that.”
Wal-Mart has said it will transfer as many employees as possible from the stores slated to close to nearby Wal-Marts. Rose Truesdale, a Winnsboro resident who has worked at the Wal-Mart store for nine years, hopes to get transferred to a Wal-Mart on Bush River Road or Killian Road in Richland County.
“I’ve got a living to make,” she said. “I’ve got to do what I gotta do.”
Truesdale said news of the closing was “unreal, because I know we’ve got good business here.”
She said she believes a major reason for the store’s closing is theft. “And it’s bad around here. It really is.”
Gaddy, the mayor, also said he heard the store suffered significant pilferage.
Asked about theft in the store, Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick said the company does not publicly break down shrinkage levels in its stores.
However, “I can tell you that financial performance was definitely a factor as we performed our overall portfolio review and high shrink levels are a factor in all stores’ financial performance,” Nick said.
For Winnsboro, another potential issue involving Wal-Mart’s departure is city taxes. Because the Wal-Mart is within city limits, the store generated a significant share of the city’s 1-cent sales tax, said Gaddy, the mayor. That allowed the city to abolish city property taxes.
It’s unclear if the store’s closing will necessitate all or partial reinstatement of property taxes in Winnsboro, the mayor said. “That’s an issue most people aren’t aware of,” he said.
People in Winnsboro shouldn’t panic, said Marianne Bickle, director of the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina. The footprint of big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target are becoming smaller, she said, in part because retailers see that consumers are flocking toward smaller stores.
When the Sears closed at Columbiana Centre in the Harbison area, the nearby Belk store expanded. Likewise, when a free-standing audio store in that area closed, a jewelry store opened in its place, drawing more traffic, adding employment and enhancing property values, she noted.
“Something better came along,” Bickle said.
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398