The six-store Hickman’s IGA chain headquartered in Mexico, Mo. recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the family-owned chain continues to pride itself on being a company that maintains a small-town feel and treats its customers right. “We celebrated our anniversary in 2009 with a year-long event, and now we hope to keep going through another 50 years,” said Jim Hickman, president.

Hickman is the son of Bob and Jewell Hickman, who bought a small store in Perry, Mo. in 1959. The Hickmans improved the old building by adding a new floor, replacing the cases, and adding air conditioning.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, Jim Hickman and three of his brothers became more involved in the business, adding several stores and buying out their father’s store when he retired. “My parents had seven sons, and I was the middle one,” Hickman said. “We each grew up in the store, and some of us stayed in the business and some moved on.”

As the chain grew, Hickman continued to concentrate on providing the best grocery store possible to small towns. “In some cases, we may be the only store in town, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have competition,” he said. “It’s easier to get around and drive to other towns now, and people do so frequently. But we primarily try to stay in small towns and are very community oriented.”

Many of the store employees live in the communities they work in, and Hickman said that dedication to community has paid dividends for the company. The customers appreciate seeing the same faces in the store every week and knowing that their neighbors are looking after them. “We get to know a lot of the customers by name,” he said.

The chain also mails out weekly and monthly specials to customers in the region, and many of those specials are also available in an online flyer. The stores offer double manufacturers coupons along with a number of other conveniences, including check cashing, copying, and faxing.

Thinking big

Hickman’s IGA stores may be based in small towns, but that doesn’t mean they are out of date. “There have been a lot of changes in the grocery business, but the biggest change has probably been the consolidation of chains and stores over the years,” Hickman said. 

To help stay on an equal footing with the larger grocers, Hickman’s joined a group of 50 IGA stores based out of Champaign, Ill. several years ago. “It’s been a real successful program for us,” Hickman said. “We’ve been able to benefit by having the combined buying power of all the stores.”

The chain also benefits from close relationships with its vendors. As with its employees, many of the vendors live and shop in the stores they serve. “It can really be a benefit to have such a close relationship with the vendors,” Hickman said. 

As for the employees, he said the recent economic situation has meant fewer workers leaving the stores and more of a labor pool to hire from when there is an opening. “There are times when there is a lot of turnover, but that hasn’t been a problem lately,” said Hickman. 

There isn’t a formal training program for new employees in the stores, but rather, a reliance on the expertise of long-time employees. “In most of our stores, we’ve had people who have been around for a long time, so they know their jobs,” he said.

There’s also a lot of leeway given to let the store managers do what’s best for their stores. “We let them make the decisions they need to make at the store level,” Hickman said. “They typically live in the communities and know those communities very well.”

Hickman points to a recent event organized by the manager of the Winfield store as an example of that ability to draw the community together. “He worked with the local Anheuser-Busch distributor and had the Budweiser Clydesdales come out as part of a larger event in the store’s parking lot on a Saturday afternoon,” Hickman said. “It was really a great day, and I think the whole town came out.”

Growth opportunities

One of the major obstacles to growth for the company is that several of the stores are located in areas with stagnant growth. However, Hickman said he sees an opportunity for growth at several of the stores located near Mark Twain Lake.

“It’s a growing area that gets a lot of visitors from St. Louis and Kansas City,” he said. “It’s a good fishing lake with a campground, so it has brought in more tourist business over the past several years.”

As Hickman’s IGA begins its second half-century of business, Hickman said there will continue to be an emphasis on doing the things that have made the chain successful in its first 50 years. “We have good employees, and we provide the best quality products,” he said. “Having good quality produce and meats at fair prices is an advantage we have over the big-box stores.”

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