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C-Falls store spruced up with remodel

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | July 19, 2020 1:00 AM

The Smith’s Food and Drug store in Columbia Falls is housed in a building that dates back more than 60 years, but you wouldn’t know from looking at it. Smith’s completed a major remodel over the course of the past year to spruce up the long-running grocery store.

“We were desperately in need of that face-lift,” Store Manager Mikael Ahlstrom said. “The store has been here forever.”

What started as a B&B Department store in the 1950s became Smith’s Food and Drug in 1998 when Kroger purchased the store. The 35,000-square foot space has gone through two additions over the course of its lifetime, so the time had come for a few updates.

The Nucleus Avenue storefront was completely remodeled over the course of two months during fall 2019. The south entrance was temporarily closed for weeks while crews worked to renovate the front face of the building.

The entire exterior was repainted, cement parking blocks were added to the parking lot and the large sign on Nucleus Avenue was replaced with a lower-profile marker. “It looks more in tune with the street,” Ahlstrom observed.

Inside, the flooring in the produce section was redone with wood paneling, and the layout was overhauled to make check-out more efficient.

“We’re a small store. We don’t have the area to grow our footprint,” Ahlstrom explained, so maximizing the existing space was central to keeping the store up-to-date.

The rearrangement of the interior, including repositioning the customer service area from the south entrance to the north entrance, made space for one of the most notable parts of the renovation: adding six new self-checkout machines.

“That’s been huge,” Ahlstrom reported. “So far, it’s been working awesome.”

The self-checkout stations seem to be the wave of the future in grocery stores, and Ahlstrom noted they couldn’t have arrived at a better time given the COVID-19 pandemic. The machines were debuted about four weeks ago in the Columbia Falls store, and Ahlstrom said customers have appreciated a more contactless option for shopping during the pandemic.

The kiosks help reduce congestion in the store, particularly in the summer months when the small space quickly fills up. Ahlstrom said they removed two of the older checkout lines to make way for the six self-checkout machines.

It’s a better situation for everyone, since the traditional checkout lines have sometimes been so busy the attendants haven’t had time to leave their stations to go get lunch. With the new layout, Ahlstrom said, “it really makes things quicker for people.”

Adding self-checkout machines is a particularly good option for the Columbia Falls Smith’s in the summertime, when the store sees a lot of out-of-town shoppers stop by to pick up a few small items for trips to Glacier National Park and other recreation destinations. Ahlstrom said the average order at the store during the summer is only $34. So it makes sense to provide a way for these speedy shoppers to get in and out quickly and leave room at the traditional stations for shoppers with fuller carts.

“It relieves some of the congestion for regular orders,” Ahlstrom pointed out.

Contrary to some concerns, Ahlstorm also said the machines have actually created more work for employees instead of cutting jobs, as some community members feared. The self-checkout stands require a worker to monitor the area at all times, which Ahlstrom said has added 120 hours of work for the Smith’s staff.

“We’re not cutting jobs,” he promised.

In fact, Smith’s is committed to bringing more opportunities to the small town.

He pointed out Columbia Falls, with a population of 6,000, has more options for groceries and fuel than many towns with a much bigger population, but Smith’s sees the area as ripe for ongoing growth. The volume of sales and the number of customers at the Smith’s in Columbia Falls continues to increase year after year, Ahlstrom reported. “It definitely makes sense to keep investing,” he said.

With that goal in mind, Smith’s opened its sprawling new fueling station at the corner of U.S. 93 and Montana 40 at the beginning of the year after about seven years of negotiations.

“Everybody loves the fuel center,” said Ahlstrom, who called the new site the largest Smith’s fueling center he’s seen in his entire career with the company.

There are also plans to add a few more finishing touches to the remodel in the next year or so, including redoing the rest of the floor and potentially the parking lot as well.

“Then I think we’ll be about perfect,” Ahlstrom said.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at (406)-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.

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Shown is the customer care center, which was moved to make room for the new self-checkout lanes at Smith's Food and Drug in Columbia Falls on Tuesday, July 14. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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A new facade has updated the Smith’s building, constructed more than 60 years ago.