Family-run business Shopper’s Grocery Mart on Alberni Highway in Parksville is closing after 42 years of serving the community.
The store is run by brother-sister duo Don and Laura Wilhelm. They took over from their parents, Donald and Audrey Wilhelm, who first started the store in 1978. The store’s last day of business will be Saturday, Jan. 18.
In the era of big grocery chains and round-the-clock gas station convenience stores, the duo says it was tough to keep up.
“Just not making money any more. It’s not worth opening the door anymore, if you’re not making money,” said Don.
In the time that the store has been around, the two have seen Parksville change a lot – and it hasn’t all been a boon to their business.
“Lots of competition, now that gas stations have corner stores in them, the big stores are all open late, minimum wage increasing,” said Laura.
“Theft is a huge one. That’s one of the main reasons.”
Laura and Don say that theft from their store has tripled in the past five years. They say people have stolen a wide variety of things – chocolate bars, dog food, candy, you name it.
“Our SPCA tin one time, right off the counter,” said Don.
The two are sad to see the store go. Their family moved from Mackenzie in the late 1970s, and the store has been a constant throughout their lives since then.
“Our mom and dad started it 42 years ago, it was over where M&N Mattress [is]. … They were there for eight to 10 years, I think, then they moved it over here. So we’ve grown up in the store, our friends have grown up here,” said Laura.
The two both have fond memories of a childhood spent among the penny candies.
“We used to work for 25 cents an hour, then we’d run to the video store, arcade, spend all our money,” said Laura with a laugh.
“Come back because we lost all our money,” Don added.
“Just lots of fun, just being able to work as a family. Our mom and dad, they’re passed now, but it was a great upbringing,” said Laura.
The sense of family is strong in the store, for both the Wilhelms and their customers.
“Everybody that works here is family or friends, everybody knows everybody,” said Don.
The two are familiar with their regular customers. They say they’ve had an outpouring of love, both in-person and online, since they announced their closure.
After 42 years, their customer base spans generations, with the children and grandchildren of original customers coming in day after day.
Customers have been quick to remember their parents, Donald and Audrey. Laura says comments on a Facebook post she made have quickly added up to a pile of heartfelt memories.
“How funny my dad was, my mom’s warm smile,” said Laura.
Laura’s Facebook post announcing the store’s closure had 160 comments as of Jan. 9, including:
“Your store is a true Parksville fixture and forever part of our great city’s history.” – Chris Burger
“Parksville will miss this little gem.” – Cheyne Davies
“Oh man … been going to ‘Shoppers’ since I was wee for chocolate bars and cokes on the back of my dad’s 10-speed.” – Cara MacDonald
The two would also like to thank former employee Margaret Brown, who worked in the store for more than 30 years.
“She was like a second mom, everybody loved her here,” said Laura.
The NEWS reached out to other convenience store owners in the area to see how business is doing. There are seven independent convenience stores left in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area, including Shopper’s.
Peter Haseltine bought the Log Cabin General Store four-and-a-half years ago, in large part for the property that it sits on, though he’s also involved in the day-to-day running of the store.
He says competition from retailers of all kinds combined with ever-rising wages, taxes and hydro makes the convenience store a “tough category.” He also notes that the very nature of convenience itself is changing.
“The definition of convenience for the consumer is changing quite a bit. You see that being manifested with things like SkipTheDishes,” said Haseltine.
“Are we going to be delivering ice cream cones on a hot summer’s day down to the beach? I’m not so sure. But maybe you have to find a way. So it’s the nature of convenience that I think is going to change things, as much as anything.”
The store relies a lot on its regulars. Hasletine says the business used to close down over the winter, but he’s chosen to keep it open to serve a population that’s loyal to him.
“We feel some responsibility to stay connected with our regulars, they’re going to support us. Maybe we have to subsidize a little bit,” said Haseltine.
And a lot of it is location, location, location.
“Convenience really is all about location… if you’ve got the good location, you’ll be fine, as long as you’re a decent operator,” said Haseltine.
“As long as I’ve got the products that people want, and I don’t gauge them over much, then you know our location works for us. And especially in the summer.”
As for Shopper’s Grocery Mart, savvy shoppers can stop by on Friday and Saturday to pay their respects to the Parksville institution, and maybe even scoop up a deal.
“There’s going to be a huge sale next Friday and Saturday to try and get rid of [all the candy]. Come on in!” said Laura.