Jones: The Economics of Small Towns

Aug. 4, 2022

Ratchet+Wrench editor Chris Jones reflects on the strength and resiliency of the businesses he saw growing up in rural Virginia and how the "off the beaten path economy" always finds a way. 

I grew up in rural Virginia. As a kid, our unincorporated community had an elementary school, a convenience store, a gas station, a pizza parlor, a trash dump, and two auto repair shops.

For all 19 years of my life there, none of those businesses went under. The store and gas station found ways to keep earning the community’s dollar by providing VHS rentals and, by 1988, both housed lottery machines for the newly-established Virginia Lottery. One of the auto shops tapped into the audio market while the other had such a sterling reputation as a high-quality shop, it didn’t have to do anything beyond keeping up with automotive trends. My parents tapped into these local resources as much as they could and when the needs weren’t available, like for extensive grocery shopping, we went into the neighboring town. I think it was like that for most families. We did what we could to keep our local businesses stimulated, and in return, they found ways to provide us goods and services we needed.

As Hank Williams Jr. crooned,  “Country folks can survive.”

And so can the shop off the beaten path.

In this issue, we feature two rural shops—Precision Imports in Milaca, Minnesota, and Mike’s Auto Service in Haddam, Connecticut. They spoke at length to Ratchet+Wrench about what it's like to be a rural shop in America and how they navigated COVID and the subsequent supply chain fallout post-pandemic. We also discussed bonding with small-town customers, curb appeal, technology, and what the electric future holds for shops outside of urban influence.

Also on the topic of influence, columnist Aaron Stokes discusses why shop owners need to turn their attention to attracting top-flight employees looking for a career change from faltering industries during these challenging times. He also makes a strong case for making sure shops create growth and advancement opportunities for existing employees to prevent them from seeking better pay and positions elsewhere.

And of course, knowing who to hire when and for which position starts with understanding your metrics. In “Are You Leaving Money on the Table?” writer Nola O’Hara takes a look at the customer service index and what it means for shops that track key metrics and what happens when opportunities get left on the table—or customers are lost due to poor employee performance—when you fail to track your data.

Finally, columnist Joe Marconi tackles the factors shop owners need to consider when choosing to raise rates and why making the decision based on the actions of other shops, external economic factors, or emotions aren’t the best approaches. 

Today, my hometown still looks pretty much the same. As for those businesses I grew up around, the only thing that was able to close them—time. No one can beat the clock. But, while you’re here, stay viable, serve your community, and make hay while the sun shines.

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

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