HURON – Kevin Scheel was a year out of high school when he took a job carrying groceries to customer cars at Randall’s Discount Foods.
It was October 1973.
“I really had no illusions of making the grocery business a career,” the farm kid who grew up in the Lane and Alpena areas said.
“But as things progressed, you started taking on more responsibility, whether that was being in charge of the store overnight, or I did some time in the produce department,” Scheel said.
He gained experience in all areas of the store except for the meat department, and in 1983 he was promoted to assistant manager. His opportunity to become manager came three years later when Don Farmer decided to leave Huron to run a Randall’s store in Sioux Falls.
But this weekend, Scheel’s career with Randall’s, which came under the ownership of SuperValu for a year before Coborn’s bought it, comes to an end with his decision to retire.
He looks back on the last 44 years as a time of tremendous change in the grocery business and, as he looks to the future, he sees a time when, especially in larger cities, people will shop for groceries, like most other products, with computers instead of shopping carts.
Scheel was in his early 30s when he took the reins at Randall’s.
“At that time I was pretty young, actually, to take over the store,” he said. “In today’s world, we have store managers now that are in their early 20s.
“It’s changed tremendously,” he said. “But back in those days it was a little more detailed as far as what you did.”
Store managers used to be responsible for paying the bills and writing the payroll checks for their employees. Now that is all done at the corporate level somewhere else.
Technology in the checkout lanes – bar code scanners to tabulate a customer’s bill, for example – has evolved from Scheel’s early days when grocery items were added up by manually punching the appropriate keys of a cash register and a cash-paying patron’s change was figured out by the clerk.
“When I look back on those, they were just like dinosaurs,” he said of the NCR registers. “I mean they were older than the hills.”
Today’s register systems do all the work, from the company’s loyalty program in accumulating points to discounts for gas to scanning groceries.
Scheels points with pride to the late 1970s, when Randall’s in Huron was among the first five stores in the nation to start using bar code scanning.
“You could say we were pioneers,” he said.
In about 1998, Ron Randall sold the company which had hired a young Kevin Scheel.
For about a year, SuperValu owned the store here, and then Coborn’s bought it in 1999, as SuperValu pieced out the Randall’s operation, closing some stores and selling others to different companies.
Fifteen years ago, Coborn’s expanded the Huron store from about 38,000 square feet to approximately 52,000 square feet.
Coborn’s has added new product lines to accommodate the grocery needs of the city’s newest residents. More Hispanic and Karen items are on store shelves, but Scheel believes more could be done.
“I think we have to understand the culture better than what we have right now,” he said. “We do have Hispanic items, of course, but I just don’t think we’ve done as good a job as maybe our competition down the street.
“But we do see quite a bit of ethnic traffic in the produce area,” he said.
Younger customers are pretty health conscious and read product labels, he said. “Amazingly, our natural foods is probably the biggest growing department we have,” Scheel said.
Coborn’s employs people company-wide who do nothing but draft movement reports so shelves can be re-set with products to replace those items that aren’t selling.
But Scheel said products that sell in a store in South Dakota, for example, may not sell in St. Cloud or the Twin Cities. Items often fly off the shelves in the five stores in the oil fields of western North Dakota, but not elsewhere.
“It’s tough enough just between Mitchell and Huron,” he said. “Mitchell’s got items that they can sell like crazy that would never sell in Huron. I don’t know if it’s the ethnic difference in people.”
Coborn’s attempts to fulfill specific requests for items that customers – who they refer to as guests – when they don’t see them on the shelves, he said.
“It’s a big deal in our company and if we don’t carry it on the shelf and it’s just a specialty item that somebody wants, we can order it from our own warehouse or one of the other stores in the chain and they will send a case over for that guest so they will have what they want,” Scheel said.
Coborn’s recently bought a delivery service in the Twin Cities. Drivers and a fleet of vans deliver orders called in by customers. Huron’s store delivers, but on a much smaller scale.
“Maybe I’m not going to see it, but the brick and mortar days of retail to me – I don’t think it’s going to happen so much out here, in our area, because we’re the Midwest and we’re generally kind of the last place it happens – but in the city areas we can see brick and mortar eventually go away,” Scheel said. “It’s all going to be done on computer.”
As he steps away from his daily presence in the store, Scheel says he will miss all the guests that he has come to know over the years.
He will miss his employees, too, of course, who he considers to be family.
But he says he’ll be back in the store often, as a guest instead of the boss, and pledges not to criticize what the new manager is doing.
Throughout his career, he has remembered things Farmer taught him as he groomed the young man to take over.
“I really respected him and just can’t thank him enough for giving me the chance,” Scheel said. “He said, ‘you work hard, you play hard and you really take care of the people that are taking care of you.’”
Communication is also a key.
“If you can’t get everybody on the same page you’re not going to succeed,” he said.
“You have to have compromise in everything that you do or you’re not going to make it,” Scheel said. “You can’t just have everything your own way.
“I think we’re losing sight of that as a country and also as people,” he said.