When Gwen Christon was introduced to grocery retail, she was just looking for a job in her hometown of Isom, Kentucky.
“I didn’t envision ever being in the grocery business. I really just envisioned getting a job…and going to work,” she said with a laugh.
After her entry position in stocking, Christon continued to move up as the years passed and the passion grew. Christon has been the owner of Isom IGA since 1998. She lives about five miles away from her store in the predominantly white community. Her grandparents moved to the town in the 1950s to work in the coalfields.
“I just love it here and the community is a very welcoming, loving community…I just ended up getting comfortable here,” she said. “And with the previous owners, they just continued to move me up in different positions until when they got ready to retire. They ended up selling me the business.”
Her 16,000-square-foot store serves as a grocery pillar in the mountainous area. The closest Walmart and Food City are 12 miles away. Christon has seen her customers take a liking to curbside orders, which took off during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of late, Isom IGA is averaging several thousand dollars in sales a week, she said.
The grocer decided to pursue the venture when they noticed their competition was offering it. Customers can call the store or send an email to place an order.
“We actually just ended up making little fliers and doing it the old-fashioned way – just put them in the bag as the customers went out…we had our windows painted and put the telephone number on there and put our email address up,” Christon said.
Within a community of about 1,000 people, word of mouth also helped spread the news. Christon said she is trying to move away from paper ads. However, her customers are older and most of the younger crowd moves to bigger cities.
“My goal is to try to be able to attract the 40-year-olds and under. And so that’s how we kind of moved over to Facebook…when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is pick up my phone and make a Facebook post,” she said.
They have 500 print ads that come into the store every week that they place at the end of the cash registers and they no longer mail any out. In regard to other operations, Christon said her supply chain was “pretty tough” as of early February. However, she has moved up from a 40 percent supply rate.
“I have as many out as I do products arriving in the back door, so I’m running about a 50 percent supply,” she said.
Isom IGA has a team of 25 employees, which include her husband and son, who recently earned a master’s degree in business. She said the average tenure at her store is about 10 years, with some employees having been there as long as 25 years.
“To me that’s just stability, loyalty… I’m just very appreciative. They’re more like family to me than employees, to be honest with you,” Christon said.
She added that she’s looking forward to a renovation of the front-end cash register system and to purchase four self-checkouts or “fast lanes.”
For more information, visit isom.iga.com.