Erin Cilley bought B&B Cash Market in 2020 at the height of the pandemic to fulfill a desire to own her own business. Commercial activity in town is sparse, and the small shop is the community’s only purveyor of food and household goods.
“We started this store with no loan; we only started with money in our pocket, so we don’t have a fat cushion-like other places,” Cilley said. “We just had the money that we pooled together, the two of us.”
The “two of us” are Cilley, 42, of West Fairlee, and her business partner, Dustin Hill, 40, of Fairlee. With the help of Cilley’s sister, Melanie Durkee, of Post Mills, and other family members, they have replaced coolers, painted and added a deli counter to the store, breathing new life into it.
But with inflation at historic levels for necessities such as gas and food, Cilley is left worrying about the future of the business and the impact on residents if it closes.
I don’t sleep a lot lately,” Cilley said. “I sleep, but I’m constantly stressing about it, just to make ends meet.”
The store places weekly orders with vendors. In the course of six months, Cilley said, she has seen prices increase on almost every item she needs to operate. A case of frying oil she uses in her deli has gone from $37.45 to $66.60.
Other items like eggs have also nearly doubled in price in just the course of a week. Her cost for a 12-dozen shipment of eggs had been $24, but she’s now being asked to pay $44 for the same purchase.
Cilley said the rising prices are sending shoppers to big-box stores, even though it requires as much as a 45-minute trip one-way. The same dozen eggs that might cost a customer about $2 at a chain grocery store would cost $5.19 at Cilley’s shop. Cilley said supporting local small businesses is important, but she understands why increasingly cost-conscious shoppers are turning to lower-cost options.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, food costs haven’t seen such a jump in costs since 1981, when gas first topped $1 per gallon. In 2022, fuel prices are again helping to drive inflation. The recent food price hikes are expected to be exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine and drastic pandemic lockdowns in major trading hubs in China. Bloomberg recently reported that the average American household can expect to spend $5,000 more annually on necessities than it did a year ago.
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Cilley understands that she isn’t alone in the fight to keep businesses going as economic pressures bear down.
The Blue Sparrow Cafe in Norwich had to shut down for a period due to staffing shortages, and The Fairlee Diner sat its final meal in the beginning of April, also citing hiring problems.
At Vittles Espresso and Eatery in Bradford, Vt., owner and operator Kendall Gendron has been forced to increase prices twice in the last six months, mostly due to the skyrocketing prices of supplies and scarcity of disposable items.
“Every week I have to hunt down a new vendor for my bare essentials because they sell out so quickly,” Gendron said. “It’s a double-edged sword as well, because I can’t accept personal coffee mugs because of COVID, so even a green initiative is risky right now. Fortunately, I have fabulous customers that understand the supply-chain issues are out of my control.”
Cilley staffs her store with family. She said that without their help, she believes the store would meet the same fate as other businesses undone by inflation.
“Without my dad and my mom here in the morning, if we didn’t have everyone’s help, my family, things would not run,” Cilley said.
The Hair Shop in Fairlee also reports increasing prices on services and products due to inflation. Owner Brittney Ricker, 37, operates the hair salon out of her home after transitioning from a retail space in 2021. Ricker has raised the price of haircuts by $2 to $3 and services like dyeing by $5 to $10 to cover the increased cost of supplies.
She said she could charge more for her services, but being in a small town she understands that everyone is struggling with rising prices.
“I think that’s the biggest change through all this inflation, that we are one of the only businesses who are making less than we could because we choose not to,” Ricker said.