March 5, 2009 in Washington Voices

Changing as Cheney grows

Ben Franklin store owners Bill and Nancy Nation keep store running 28 years
Wendy Huber Correspondent
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Bill and Nancy Nation own the Ben Franklin variety store in Cheney. In the days of big-box retailers, locally owned variety stores are becoming a rarity.
(Full-size photo)

Since 1981, Bill and Nancy Nation have owned the Ben Franklin store in Cheney. The 28 years have included many joys, changes and challenges.

“We’re a bedroom community. Our competition is in Spokane,” says Bill Nation. “Of course what happens to Cheney, is that development comes around you and cuts off part of your marketplace. This is what happens to small towns.”

When Bill Nation started working for Ben Franklin in the early 1970s there were several thousand franchise stores throughout the country. Then in 1996 Ben Franklin went bankrupt. Promotions Unlimited bought the name of the company. All former Ben Franklins either had to buy the name back from Promotions Unlimited, or buy sufficient merchandise from them to retain the name. Fortunately the Nations had already bought enough from the firm.

“Losing Ben Franklin was a huge change,” says Nancy Nation. “I think if we hadn’t lost Ben Franklin then Bill and I would probably be mostly retired. But it really was like burning down the building and starting up a foundation. You had to rebuild. The whole program. Because nothing worked. None of the systems worked.”

Ben Franklin stores number only in the hundreds now, and are all independent. Many are solely devoted to craft rather than variety merchandise. The Nations feel their Ben Franklin couldn’t be supported as just a craft store in a small town such as Cheney. Luckily variety products are always popular, and population increases in Cheney have helped compensate for the deteriorating economy.

“We have had growth unreal in Cheney, which is probably why we’ve basically stayed pretty well even,” says Bill Nation. “Last year, even with (new surrounding stores), our sales were only down less than 20 percent. And now we’re starting to have some increases.”

One challenge is the decrease of big national warehouses for general merchandise. Indeed there is just one national warehouse of any size that still services small, independent stores. Certain items have become hard to obtain, such as domestics, because those products are being manufactured as name brands for huge department stores.

Ben Franklin can’t afford to have its own name brand. The Nations have reduced their apparel line, as a wide selection requires more customers than are available in Cheney. Gift sales have shrunk due to the slow economy. But fabric and crafts are always popular, so that section was expanded.

“It’s been a huge job,” says Nancy Nation. “I thought it’d take two to three years, but we’ve been at it 13 years now, and we still keep finessing and changing because everything keeps changing. You think you got it, and then somebody buys somebody out, and then you have to figure out where you’re going to buy it. It takes a long time to research.”

However their loyal clientele sustains the Nations. In the almost three decades they have come to know numerous Cheney families. They trust that over the years many customers return.

“We would hope so. We try to be nice,” smiles Bill Nation.

“We don’t let him on the floor anymore,” teases Nancy Nation.

The talk becomes more serious.

“Really, though, you become very attached to a lot of the customers,” says Bill Nation. “Probably the worst thing that I have found about being in a small community like this forever is losing customers by them dying.”

“But in a small town you get to know everybody,” says Nancy Nation. “When you’ve been here 28 years someone you know is going to die.”

Sale tactics must change over the years as the economy rises and falls. The Nations have explored many strategies, including the possibility of shortening hours, eliminating slower selling products, and reducing such labor-intensive sections as helium balloons, pets and key making.

Their last resort will be downsizing, although they are down to 24 employees, which includes their two sons. Only a year ago they had 36 workers. But customer service always has been their most important feature, and would be difficult to maintain with fewer employees.

Despite today’s challenges the Nations will continue to run Ben Franklin with the hope of a recovering economy.

“Every day we get asked if we will have to close,” says Nancy Nation. “I hope not!”

Reach correspondent Wendy Huber by e-mail at wendhuber@lycos.com.


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