Several Retailers are Top Producers

by James Little  on Monday, Jul. 15, 1996 12:00 am  

By all accounts, the northeast Arkansas economy is booming. Retailers and restaurateurs are finding many untapped sectors in the marketplace, while area consumers are enjoying increased selections, lower prices and virtually nonexistent unemployment.

"This year is absolutely phenomenal," City Building Inspector Ron Shipley says. "Every day since about three weeks ago is a record-setting pace in Jonesboro now."

Several big-time players, mostly chain restaurants, have looked at the area. Officials with restaurants such as Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar, Red Lobster and Chili's Grill & Bar have looked at moving into the lucrative Jonesboro market, but reportedly left discouraged about prospects for selling liquor. By law, only private clubs can sell mixed drinks in Craighead County.

But obtaining a liquor license or lobbying to make Jonesboro wet really isn't the issue, city promoters say, pointing to the successful restaurants that don't serve alcohol.

Dixie Cafe set up shop last year with a soda fountain instead of a bar. Another teetotaling entrant, Ryan's Family Steak House, opened its doors this spring. Fazoli's Italian Restaurant is also on the list of newcomers.

New restaurants aren't the only ones having luck in the market. For several years, the Taco Bell restaurant on Caraway Road has been the top-selling Taco Bell in the world.

The store is owned by Wallace Fowler of Fowler Foods Inc. of Jonesboro. Fowler says that when he bought the restaurant from the Taco Bell company in 1986, it was already one of the top stores in the country

Fowler also owns a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant adjacent to the Taco Bell; that establishment has consistently been the top KFC in the state. His other KFC across town has been named one of the "Best of the Best" KFCs in the nation by the corporation.

Heavenly Ham, a relative newcomer to the Jonesboro retail market, is the No. 1 store of its national chain.

Other restaurant chains have had success in the city and expanded into new neighborhoods. Both Pizza Inn and McDonalds opened new restaurants last year on Johnson Avenue on the outskirts of Arkansas State University. The new stores are the third Pizza Inn and the fourth McDonalds in the city.

"Jonesboro is a 'can do' town," Shipley says. "If you want to do it and if you are progressive, Jonesboro is the town that you want to plant your business in."

Wal-Mart's Jewel

It's not just the city's restaurants atop their national chains; the Jonesboro Wal-Mart Supercenter, since opening in 1992, has consistently been one of the nations' top Wal-Marts.

In fact, the store was only at its previous location for a couple of years before demand left the store's capacity behind. That location, about 10 years old, now provides retail space for a Goody's and a Hobby Lobby.

Although Wal-Mart Stores Inc. doesn't disclose sales figures for individual stores, it's almost common knowledge around Jonesboro that the local Supercenter is one of the top stores for the Bentonville-based retailer.

"[The city has] been told that with the photo department and, at times, the optical department, it is one of the top-producing stores they have in the nation," Shipley says.

Still relatively undeveloped, the intersection of Highland and Stadium drives in Jonesboro is still the most likely spot for future retail development in the city.

Ryan's Family Steak House has opened near the southwest corner of the intersection. The northwest corner is a strip shopping center, and the northeast corner, still several acres of farmland, is said to be the most likely location for a new mall for the city.

A few empty acres adjacent to the new Ryan's building are still for sale, but retailers nearby have heard about a few possible tenants.

"We've heard rumors about a Circuit City and an Applebee's going in there," says Roger Barber, manager of the new Hollywood Grill. Barber, along with his brother and father, opened the restaurant in May in the Highland Center, betting on the future development at the intersection.

Go Krogering

A new state-of-the-art Kroger store at 1525 S. Caraway Road in Jonesboro isn't expected to be open for business until November, but the first few weeks of construction are going well, according to workers at the site.

"The steelworkers came in and had this up in a matter of days," one bricklayer at the site says. The current Kroger store, which will be leased out for other retail use, is probably going to be divided into two storefronts, he says.

Although calls to the Kroger Co. in Memphis were not returned, Joe Tomlinson, a building inspector for the city, says the new store will cover 59,700 SF.

It will have 15 checkout lanes, a pharmacy, floral department, video, produce, deli, bakery and seafood. The sales area will cover 49,000 SF.

The new store is being built on the site of the city's first Wal-Mart, which was converted into a Bud's Wholesale Outlet and closed early last year.

The new Kroger store is part of a major repositioning effort in several Arkansas markets. A 60,000-SF Kroger store opened in Benton in May, a 64,000-SF store is in the works for west Little Rock and a major remodeling effort at the store in Sherwood is incorporating parts of the Indian Hills Shopping Center into an expanded grocery store.

Kroger's move in Jonesboro isn't the only change in the city's grocery landscape. The closing of three supermarkets in Jonesboro has opened the way for two new players and one expansion.

Hayes Supermarkets, which operated three stores in Jonesboro, went bankrupt in 1994, making room for a new Wallace and Owens store at U.S. Highway 63 and Woodsprings Road, a Farmer's Market on West Matthews Avenue and a Country Mart store on Caraway Road.

Retrenching for Retail

Both the Lowe's Home Improvement Center and the Barton's Do It Center are riding a tsunami wave of record construction. Despite the building boom, both stores are trying to refocus their attention away from construction sales and into the higher-margin, do-it-yourself market.

To accomplish this, Barton's recently bought the Do It Center name, logos and signs from a cooperative organization to which the company belongs. Sales areas have been remodeled, and the lumber yard has been enclosed by a 20-foot-high wall facing the U.S. 63 bypass.

The move from a 12,000-SF Barton's Lumber store, which had been the company's flagship since 1970, to a 33,000-SF Do It Center has been a major effort for the Jonesboro-based company. The shift in sales approaches may be partially because of an expansion by Lowe's Cos., but changes in the hardware market are leading both companies toward the retail oasis.

"It's hard to say how [the new Lowe's store] has affected us," says Harold Bouland, manager of the Barton's store. "Our business has continued to grow, as I'm sure theirs has - it hasn't affected us negatively."

Bouland says the company doesn't want the move toward more retail business to alienate current potential customers. The new store features a separate counter for contractor sales and a special 5,000-SF sales area.

About six months after the new Do It Center opened, the company still estimates that 80 percent of its total sales are to builders.

In 1994, Lowe's moved from a 24,000-SF store on Caraway Road to a 150,000-SF building off Highland Drive, a more than 500 percent increase in floor space. The store relocation was part of a major expansion by the company.

"In the 1980s we realized we had a business that was tied to housing starts and lumber commodities," company spokeswoman Cinny Haynes says. In 1989, the company retrenched and began what it calls the "Big Store Rollout" in hopes of gaining more of the retail hardware market.

A new store for Jonesboro was part of that retrenchment.

The North Carolina-based company won't release income figures for individual stores, but Lowe's estimates that a new store like Jonesboro's will gross $30 million in its second year of operation.

E.C. Barton & Co., the parent of the Jonesboro Do It Center and 25 smaller Barton's Lumber stores, is the 73rd-largest hardware retailer in the nation, according to National Home Center News. n

 

 

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