Kathryn Palmer Argus-Courier Staff
December 2, 2020, 8:30AM
Petaluma shoppers gearing up for the holidays can now add a new stop on their to-do lists, following this week’s grand opening of farm supply store Wilco at the corner of North McDowell Boulevard and Old Redwood Highway.
A farmer-owned cooperative, Wilco styles itself as a one-stop-shop for farmers and ranchers as well as those who ascribe to what the company calls a “rural lifestyle.”
At the store’s soft opening celebration Tuesday, a handful of masked employees led curious residents and members of the Petaluma business community and media around the store, including its outdoor patio and a 6,000-square-foot warehouse.
It was a welcome, albeit muted, celebration for Wilco leadership after months of uncertainty and delay amid the pandemic that has forced other retailers to close stores. Wilco originally targeted a May opening date when they announced the inaugural California location last fall, well before the world first heard of the novel coronavirus.
“We sort of put the whole thing on pause, since we didn’t know in the spring what was going to happen,” said Marketing Director Jake Wilson, as he gave a tour of the space Tuesday. “We haven’t been doing any events, and for this grand opening today, we normally would have had a huge party with offers and balloons and hoopla, and we’re not doing that.”
Chief Executive Officer Sam Bugarsky said the pandemic has also strained supply lines and temporarily halted its hiring efforts earlier in the year, when stay-at-home orders were announced. Yet on Tuesday, all the shelves were filled, and nearly every one of the location’s approximately 40 staff positions had been filled – all by either Petaluma or Sonoma County residents.
Like its 21 other locations throughout Washington and Oregon, the store is broadly divided into five sections: Pet Supplies and Grooming, Lawn and Garden, Hardware and Paint, Livestock Supplies and Fencing, and Work Wear and Boots. The store emphasizes its use of specific brands as well, including True Value, Carhartt, and Purina animal feed.
“We hang our hat on the fact that we’re owned by farmers, and we like to think of ourselves as a local store rather than a regional or national chain,” Bugarsky said.
The retail store’s Petaluma location marks the chain’s first foray into California, moving into the nearly 40,000-square-foot space left vacant by Orchard Supply Hardware after the company’s wave of closures in mid-2018.
The Oregon-based company is taking a similar approach for its next planned California location, setting up shop in a Sonora storefront left vacant by another Orchard Supply Hardware exit. That location is slated to open in April 2021 and signals the company’s wider transition into Northern California.
“We’ve been looking at California for decades, just trying to see when it would be the right fit and make the most sense,” Wilson said. “With the Orchard supplies being available, it’s kind of the perfect size store that fits what we do.”
Now opened, Bugarsky said he’s feeling hopeful that the store will fill the hole left by the prior hardware store and eventually mirror the other locations’ record-breaking year. Legacy Wilco stores have seen a 15% jump in sales just this year, Bugarsky said, compared to prior years that saw between 3% to 5% growth.
“That’s really across the hardware industry, it’s not just us,” Wilson said of the record-shattering year. “We attribute it to everyone staying home and not vacationing, everyone is doing home improvement stuff right now.”
Yet unlike its competitors, the Oregon-based company operates on a cooperative model, which gives eligible farmers and agriculture businesses the ability to buy into the company. Bugarsky compared it to REI, but instead of the outdoor company’s customer-based program, Wilco gives farmers the chance to receive dividends on their purchases and influence company governance decisions.
“Our stores do really well with a blend of urban and rural, for people that live in an apartment and have a dog, or have a raised garden bed, or farmers in the countryside,” Wilson said. “We found Petaluma was an area that fits well with our store, and we feel really good about coming here.”