Amish-run reclaimed retail and expired goods stores are thriving

The subject of a hot story put out by The Associated Press is the growing popularity of the Amish version of Family Dollar and Dollar General stores. This story was so hot it was published by newspapers, prime time news stations across the nation, by foreign news, and even by the even Forbes and Business Week.

I guess when we are all suffering an economic period of stagflation any news of cheap goods for a consuming public is a huge event indeed. A stagflation is when the paycheck remains the same while prices of goods and service continually increase. That is providing you are not among the unfortunate whose paycheck was laid off. The importance of the good news can be compared to gas prices being cut by over 50 percent. Yes, it’s true; it’s the day dream of every commuter and believer in the promise of political campaigners.

Amish-run salvage stores are a thriving discount industry tucked away in America’s farmlands. They sell all kinds of goods including food and medicine dirt-cheap. This developing rural economy is drawing a steady stream of non-Amish customers seeking relief from the effects of the current economic recession.

One question that comes to mind is whether it is legal to sell expired goods like food and medicine?

Except for baby formula, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t prohibit the sale of expired foods or medicine. The agency bars the sale of adulterated or misbranded drugs, but those are evaluated case by case. Everything else is fair game – “buyer beware,” as B&K Salvage owner Bill Gingerich puts it.

Okay, so the government doesn’t mind if consumers buy food and medicine that might kill them. The question then is whether it is actually safe to buy expired food or medicine?

Food becomes salvage after it’s discarded by supermarkets, typically because it’s damaged or nearing expiration. Seasonal products whose shelf life is over, such as Christmas-themed paper plates, also end up in the scrap heap. The products are then shipped to reclamation centers, which are owned by major grocery chains or independently run. Some products are thrown out; the rest gets packed up in banana boxes and trucked to discount stores across the country. Products that are too old or moldy are thrown out or marked as free, says Byler at Shedd Road Salvage.

It would appear that expired and reclaimed goods are generally safe. All that consumers need to do is make good judgment concerning those products that are free. Because the word on the street is they are safe and cheap, Amish salvage store are thriving.

While most of these Amish-run businesses have been around for several years, store owners say business has picked up considerably in recent months as the country struggles with rising gasoline and food prices, a credit crisis and home foreclosures. While some stores advertise in local newspapers, their popularity has largely spread through word-of-mouth.

“We have anything from a Mercedes in our parking lots down to horse and buggies,” said Ray Marvin, general manager of B.B.’s Grocery Outlet, an Amish-owned salvage store chain in Quarryville, PA. The customers are after prices resembling those of old-fashioned nickel-and-dime stores – paper towels for 50 cents a roll, salad dressing for 10 cents a bottle.

“We’ve been amazed how good we’ve done,” says Rebecca Miller, an Amish woman who opened N&R Salvage with her husband last year on the outskirts of Mesopotamia in northeast Ohio. The couple has never taken out an advertisement, she says, but the customers keep coming.

To observe the popularity of the salvage economy, look no farther than Orwell, Ohio, population 1,529. In this blip of a town there are three competing bulk discount stores, including the Amish-run M&L Salvage and Bulk Co. Store manager Sara Fisher says her family, which runs the store, keeps prices competitive with those of Family Dollar and Dollar General. Despite the competition, M&L Salvage is in no danger of going out of business.

Customers of all ages like Amish salvage stores because they can find the things they need at deep discounted prices.

“I’m trying to find ways to cut back on my grocery bill,” says 73-year-old Shirley Baxter, pushing a shopping cart down the aisles of B&K Salvage in Middlefield, Ohio. “And a place like this helps. At our age we’re on a fixed income.”

Since she discovered salvage stores, Jo Leyda of Windsor, Ohio, almost never pays more than $2 for a box of cereal.

The success of these types of business is not just cheap prices. Overhead and labor costs are also important factors contributing to their profitability.

Amish expert Don Kraybill of Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., calls the popularity of salvage stores a “mini Amish industrial revolution.” He says it is a natural outgrowth of booming Amish micro-enterprises, a result of the decline in farming. Their businesses succeed because they have low overhead, they work very hard, they’re creative, and they have an ample pool of labor within their extended families.

Experience Ohio Amish Country lists 8 retail salvage stores in Northeastern Ohio on its website.

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