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Inside the survival story of a Mississippi store fighting high inflation


The 138-year-old Simmons-Wright Company store in Kewanee, Mississippi looks like a relic, almost a museum dedicated to country life.

Its two floors are filled with baskets of cotton, cast-iron skillets and farming plows. But hiding underneath it all is a remarkably nimble business, one that's survived that long by knowing how to adapt.

Country stores are a hallmark of rural life – the kind of places where you can buy fertilizer in one aisle, lotion in the next and crickets for bait in a third.

Many, like Simmons-Wright Company, have survived for more than 100 years by learning to adapt when confronted with every economic challenge that has come its way, from the Great Recession to the Great Depression.

Now, those stores are putting those survival skills to use to deal with the latest challenge: the highest inflation the country has seen in around 40 years.

Simmons-Wright Company owner Gary Pickett says he sees the impact when his suppliers charge him more and his wallet-squeezed customers spend less.

"Normally we'll have people come in here buying 100, 150 dollars' worth of stuff," he says while watching a regular searching through the home repair wall. "Now they're coming in here and maybe they buy about 20 dollars' worth of stuff."

A matter of survival

Surviving in the face of tough economic times is nothing new for Pickett or generations of his family. He inherited the business, just off the interstate, after it was passed down to him by his aunt.

In 2008, the Great Recession was cutting into his business. In order to save the store Pickett created a new niche for the business, selling pork skins and fried catfish in the store while delivering burgers to a truck line across the border in Alabama.

The 1884 Cafe has now become the majority of his business. That makes the old knick-knacks the store is best known more like rustic decorations than actual revenue generators.

That shift helped him keep the doors open and later avoid the fate of other country stores forced to close as dollar stores replaced Walmarts as the low-cost place to shop in rural communities.

"Dollar Generals are everywhere," Pickett says "I don't try to compete with them."

Grappling with high inflation

But Pickett says now even his restaurant is feeling the inflation squeeze, and he's rethinking how to run his over 100 year business to keep the doors open.

Before, Pickett wouldn't mind throwing some extra fries into the styrofoam containers he packs meals in.

But now, to keep up with prices, Pickett's team measures everything – even the hamburger patties get weighed before cooking.

Prices at the store and restaurant have gone up around 15%. Really, he should have taken them up another 15%, Pickett says, but he also knows he can't raise prices too much.

Lauderdale County, where the store is located, is similar to much of the rest of the state with roughly one out of five residentsliving below the poverty line.

"Well, the beef and the meat has almost doubled in price," he says. "And we've gone up just a little bit, but we haven't gone up the percentage we need to go up."

However, Pickett knows if inflation continues to stay high, he will be forced to raise prices even at his restaurant.

"I know we're going to have to go up. We just don't want to run everybody off it, regular customers," he says.

Yet another pivot?

Just like when he pivoted to his restaurant business, Pickett is considering whether he will need more drastic changes to ensure survival at a time when economists are now also warning about a potential recession.

One idea floated by Pickett's son is to turn the place into an event venue. His son predicts wedding and photo shoots held at the store's old cotton gin could bring in $10,000 per event.

The idea leans into a key part of Pickett's current business model – nostalgia. The old nutcrackers and antique soda bottles might not sell, but they draw in customers.

After all, changing focus yet again wouldn't be anything new for the Simmons-Wright Company.

At one point the whole second floor of the store was dedicated to shoes. In other years, the cotton gin and blacksmith shop were the moneymakers. It has even sold caskets.

It's how generations of his family have ensured the survival of the business.

"They were people that did what it took to survive," Pickett says.

Pickett hopes his son and daughter will have to be the ones to decide on that next pivot when he eventually leaves them the store. But as he confronts the current moment of punishing inflation, it may force him yet again to figure out how to ensure the Simmons-Wright Company survives.

Copyright 2022 Gulf States Newsroom. To see more, visit Gulf States Newsroom.