Tale told of new-store adventure

 

Owners Doug and Mary Lou Lockard were working in their Coulee Wall Variety Store Saturday with daughter and manager Launi Ritter. - Scott Hunter photo

It took a lot of thought and prayer last February before Doug and Mary Lou Lockard and daughter Launi Ritter took a leap into a retail business with no experience.

Five months after opening their new Coulee Wall Variety Store, Ritter recalled for chamber of commerce members the story of starting up a complex store with nearly 12,000 individual items on its shelves - before there were any shelves, or anything, in the cavernous 4,400 square feet of open space in the building.

The family had explored the idea two years ago, as the previous variety store went out of business so its owner could retire. It didn't work out due to real estate details, and the would-be entrepreneuers decided to move on.

But last February, they got a phone call from the new owner of the building they'd looked at, asking if they were still interested.

They definitely weren't, Ritter said. That is until a rent price was offered that they thought might work. That's when the careful consideration started.

"We felt we needed to do this," said Ritter, who manages the store for her parents, the owners. "Of course, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into."

They opened the store June 1, and in the five months since, they'd had more than 11,000 transactions, Ritter said.

"We're actually delighted at how well we're doing this quickly," she told The Star later.

She said the nine-member family is contributing to the effort depending on which of their talents are sometimes needed. Her sister, Melinda Leiersapf is the company controller.

But between the decision in late winter and the late spring opening, they had a lot to learn and do.

Exactly how does someone with no such retail experience go about setting up a new store that would eventually list 23,000 different available goods in its database? How do you decide? And where do you get all those shelves, anyway?

Turns out a company in Iowa was very happy to lend its expertise in setting up stores. "So they said, 'Just give us $50,000 and we'll send you a bunch of stuff," Ritter told chamber members at their Oct. 24 luncheon. "That was a very scary check to write."


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That's a feeling understood by many people in business, and it wasn't the last time.

By April, they were in Iowa and Missouri picking out items to sell for the Christmas season.

By mid-month, the first shipment arrived - 21 pallets full, some stacked with goods six feet high. Friends, family and various volunteers, just happy to see a new store in the community, chipped in to unload into an empty building. They still had no shelves.


Coulee Hardware owner Kerry Higgins got them in touch with Shopko stores that were closing down in the state. They took five trips to Union Gap in a large U-Haul to bring back shelves as they were emptied in Shopko's going-out-of-business sale. They had to disassemble them there, then put them back together in Grand Coulee.

"It was exhausting, and it took a lot of man hours," Ritter said. But slowly the empty cavern evolved into a store. And seven weeks after launching the adventure, they were ready for a "soft opening."

Mary Lou Lockard greeted everyone at the door. They had 384 customers in their first five-hour day.

"It was so fun," said Ritter, who used to do computer maintenance locally under the banner of "Heaven Sent Computers" but now spends about 12 hours a day, six days a week running the store.

She said the venture is making "a modest profit," but nobody is getting rich.

Reading her mother's message for the chamber presentation, Ritter said, "We opened to the store because we believe in the people of the Coulee area, and are willing to invest our retirement income in making it a better place for people to raise their families."

"And that's why I get up in the morning," Ritter said.

The Lockards, from Sammamish, Washington, are hoping to move here soon.

 

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