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Grand Forks-based retailers ride regional boom with store expansions

The Grand Forks-based Home of Economy rides regional boom with store expansions.

GRAND FORKS - Wade Pearson figured the family-owned Home of Economy store in Williston, which opened in 1964, would get a boost when the Oil Patch of western North Dakota started booming a few years ago.

But the company president didn't think the family would have an economic gusher on its hands.

"There's no comparison," he said of the difference over the past four or five years. "We've completely changed our business around."

The Grand Forks-based chain has begun a 14,000-square-foot expansion and renovation at its store on Million Dollar Way in Williston. It is expected to be completed by early November.

Home of Economy has six stores in North Dakota: Grand Forks, Grafton, Devils Lake, Jamestown, Minot and Williston.

"The oil boom in the west has made a lot of things possible," he said.

In 2012, the company built a new store in Minot, using the same lot but tripling the size of its old building.

This year, it also is building a new store in Jamestown. The company initially opened in Jamestown in 2006. While business has been good, he said, the store building had no room to expand, and it was not located on a major street.

So, when Kmart announced earlier this year that its Jamestown store was closing, the Pearsons jumped at the chance.

"Within a year, we're really doubling our total floor space in the state," he said.

In the near future, perhaps in 2015, the company plans to remodel its Devils Lake store. Company officials also are considering other potential locations to expand in the future, perhaps in Minnesota.

The Home of Economy family of stores began in 1939 when M.W. "Bob" and Jean Kiesau opened a small tire store in Thief River Falls, Minn. The company is co-owned by Wade and Scott Pearson, grandsons of the Kiesaus, and their mother, Virginia Eelkema.

Facing competition

The new 84,000-square-foot Jamestown store, which is expected to open by the end of August, is in the Buffalo Mall, near Interstate 94.

The new Jamestown store is near a Walmart. Likewise, the Walmart chain is building a new store on the north end of Grand Forks, while Menards is going ahead with plans to open a store in Williston.

"You want to be close to where the traffic is," Wade Pearson said. "In our business, we don't feel as though we're competing with Walmart. We each have our own niche. Certainly, the traffic's there. The people come to town, and it's likely they're going to stop for something, so it's nice to be close.

"We feel the new Walmart on the north end of Grand Forks is going to help here. It's going to be a positive for us," he said. "They're going after a different customer with different merchandise. What they're good at, we've never been good at, particularly. What we're good at, they're not very good at."

What Home of Economy specializes in is work clothes and farm supplies, as well as automotive supplies.

Changing business

Pearson said that business has changed over the years, too.

"We've managed to adapt. That's what it's all about," he said.

Carhartt work clothes account for about 15 percent of the total sales in its Williston store, he said.

"Fire-resistant, flame-resistant Carhartt gear is our biggest seller there. We sell other flame-resistant lines, but we're known as the Carhartt store," he said. "Everybody on the rigs has got to have them. Even if you're a truck driver and you drive onto the rig site, the safety guys will check you."

A full set of insulated fire-resistant Carhartt work clothes costs about $800. And it's not unusual for workers to go through as many as two sets per season.

"We used to have a small collection of the Carhartts in Williston," he said. Now, it's going to be probably 60 percent of our floor space when we open up the new store.

"Except for the electrical business, that's an industry that really didn't exist three or four years ago," he said.

Floor space is key, he said, especially in the Oil Patch.

"We like to be known as the place where, if you've got five or six new guys, you can just send them down to us and we'll have it," he said. "That's why we're expanding what we're doing, so we do have it, especially having more square footage so we can have the product out.

"What happens is there'll be a weather event, a snow event, or it gets real cold, it just gets crazy out there. Even if you have the product in the back room you can't get it out on the floor fast enough. That's why we're expanding, so we can take care of the customers that are there that day."

The expansion project also includes increasing the size of the parking lot by 250 percent.

"We know we've lost customers because they can't find a place to park," he said.

With growth comes other changes for the company, too.

In light of strains caused by Williston's rapid growth, the store there also provides some special employee incentives. Because housing is so tight, a lot of workers in the oil industry live in campers, pickups or makeshift camps. So, the new Home of Economy will be equipped with a locker room with showers, as well as coin-operated washers and dryers for employees.

Home of Economy currently has about 260 employees companywide. With the expansions, Pearson expects that number to grow to about 290 within a couple of years.