Shopko’s bankruptcy created an opportunity in Pullman for two national retailers that are thriving during the coronavirus pandemic that has forced numerous stores to close temporarily.
Harbor Freight Tools opened at 1450 Grand Ave. in the middle of May, filling 18,000 square feet of the building that housed Shopko, which went out of business about a year ago.
Grocery Outlet is slated to join Harbor Freight in early September, occupying 24,000 square feet and leaving 26,000 square feet available for another store that’s being recruited, said Jennifer Hackman, economic development manager with the city of Pullman.
“This positive momentum in retail during the pandemic is absolutely a win, and it speaks to the underlying strength of the Pullman market, which continues to grow,” Hackman said.
Pullman benefits from the stability of farming in Whitman County and the presence of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, a manufacturer of high-tech equipment for electrical transmission that has remained open as an essential business.
SEL is the largest private employer in the region and has more than 2,600 staff members in Pullman.
The addition of Harbor Freight reflects the appreciation the family-owned company with more than 1,000 stores has for north central Idaho and southeastern Washington. It entered the region with its Lewiston store in October 2017.
The business doesn’t disclose performance of individual stores, but Harbor Freight spokesman Craig Hoffman said, “If (Lewiston) wasn’t doing well, we wouldn’t be opening another one in Pullman.”
Harbor Freight considered Pullman as a place to grow for quite a while.
“We’re always looking for good communities that we can be a part of,” Hoffman said.
The Pullman store has 35 employees and carries items such as automotive, power and hand tools as well as generators and welding supplies.
Demand for its merchandise stayed steady or grew as COVID-19 spread, partly because people need tools to keep sanitation systems and emergency vehicles running, Hoffman said.
“We’ve seen very sustained and good traffic,” he said.
The need for some safety gear was so intense that Harbor Freight removed the items from its shelves and donated them out of concern for those who had contracted coronavirus and the medical staff caring for them, Hoffman said.
It sent at least one pallet of nitrile gloves, face shields and N95 face masks to at least one emergency room in every town where it has a store as a way of making sure the supplies Harbor Freight on hand for painters and welders got to places they were needed most.
Similar to Harbor Freight, Grocery Outlet is weathering the pandemic well.
Attempts to reach Grocery Outlet for this story were not successful. But its executives discussed how the company is doing in a conference call for stock market analysts when its earnings were released May 11.
The business had a net income of $12.6 million in the first three months of this year, compared with $3.74 million for the same time last year.
The Pullman store is one of as many as 30 new stores Grocery Outlet expects to open this year, adding to 350 locations in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California and Pennsylvania, including one in Lewiston.
The stores carry staples such as fresh milk and meat as well as discounted items acquired through a variety of sources.
Grocery Outlet has been able to keep its stores well stocked, partly because it has accepted goods that normally would have gone to the food service, restaurant, airport and department store industries, where sales declined during shutdowns instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Many new customers discovered Grocery Outlet, sometimes when they couldn’t find what they needed where they normally shop, said Grocery Outlet President R.J. Sheedy.
“The healthy inventory … makes a nice impression on customers,” Sheedy said.
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