Nobody Beats Walmart Prices. Except Maybe These Guys.

Salvage stores like Greene County Damaged Freight and Foods serve as an outlet for dented or expired goods, keeping money in customers’ wallets, and for the neediest in Springfield, food on the table.

story by Zach Crizer / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 23, 2012

A cashier is greeting customers by name as she swipes name-brand goods off the belt and over a scanner. Beep — Jack Daniel’s pulled pork. Beep — Jimmy Dean sausage. Beep — Wonder Bread. Linda McCullough’s groceries are piling up at the end of the checkout counter, just as they would at a local Walmart or Price Cutter. But today, at Greene County Damaged Freight and Foods, the total isn’t mounting as fast as it would at a brand-name store.

McCullough’s shopped here ever since the family-run business — she knows the owners as “Mary Jane and them” — was in an old gas station on the corner of Kearney and Kansas in the 1980s. She chalks her three decades of loyalty up to one thing: “It’s the prices.”

Here at Greene County Freight, a loaf of bread costs 99 cents. Clif Bars sell three for a dollar. And pork loin roast starts at $1.49 per pound. The prices look like they haven’t changed since the 1980s, and that’s what keeps a steady flow of customers in the store today. With America still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession, the road to recovery has led more and more customers to stores like Greene County Freight. [1]

Greene County Freight is a neighborhood salvage store more than 30 years in the making. Salvage retailers buy goods that are turned down or discarded by other stores. The goods have often passed their sell-by dates — the expiration dates recommended by manufacturers — or were damaged during the transportation process. Over the last three decades, Greene County Freight has carved out a niche serving a part of Springfield’s population that, either out of necessity or opportunity, places a premium on stretching each dollar as far as it can go.

The hidden workings of the country’s retail machinery are perhaps never more visible than in the aisles of a salvage store. Salvage stores serve as release valves when pieces of the machine falter. The list of sources that feed Greene County Freight is a diagram of those moving pieces: truck lines, food warehouses that collect unsold items, food brokers with extra promotional products, insurance adjusters charged with getting some value for products that fail to make it to their intended destination. And while relying on the imperfections of the country’s systems seems like a precarious business situation, Mary Jane Nelson, whose family owns Greene County Freight, says the store has consistent relationships with many sources, particularly in the grocery industry.

“We do get what we call ‘banana boxes,’” Mary Jane says. “And that’s because they’re in banana boxes. There are some grocery stores up in Kansas City, and we get their ‘shelf-pulls’ and ‘denteds.’ We get them every three weeks and it’s mixed in there. It is. We give them so much a box for it and then keep record of what’s in there. You go in and see what’s in there and put the like stuff together. And it’s pretty nice stuff, because it’s come from their stores.”

Shopping at these stores, though, is inherently different than coupon-clipping or even monitoring the Walmart rollbacks. There are many ways to look at the role of salvage stores in the larger economy — not all of them positive [2] — but one hails salvage store customers for making sure products don’t unnecessarily go to a landfill.

“America is very wasteful, very wasteful, and in our business we see a lot of it,” Mary Jane says. “Some people are really hung up on [product sell-by] dates, so they’re just not interested in what we do, but that just leaves it for the rest of them.”

And therein lies the problem for many potential customers — the basic idea of risk and reward. While the price is a clear benefit to buying salvage goods, the mystery of how it arrived in a salvage store is sometimes too much to overlook. The goods at Greene County Freight have often passed their sell-by dates or bear considerable evidence of damage. In most cases, it is purely a superficial packaging problem, but that doesn’t ease all nerves. “I’ve told people when they ask me about it, ‘Now listen, if you’re apprehensive about this right now, don’t get it because you won’t enjoy it,’” Mary Jane says. “But I try to tell people, our motto is we don’t sell anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”

Customers like Cathy Nogrete, a Springfield resident whose mother first directed her to Greene County Freight, said problems with products are few and far between. She avoids salvaged products that are more prone to health concerns, such as milk, and the store doesn’t even sell items such as baby food. “I tell a lot of people about it,” she says. “My daughter’s boyfriend works at Dillon’s, but they shop here. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten anything bad.”

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A damaged ketchup bottle on sale at Greene County Freight.
(At top) Customers in the checkout aisle at Greene County Freight. (Above) A damaged ketchup bottle, selling here at a steep discount.

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The modus operandi of a salvage store is to give customers more for less. To do that, the stores sacrifice some cultural norms and level of quality — others would say luxury — in order to offer eye-popping deals that require no coupons. “Springfield is loaded with grocery stores,” Mary Jane says. “But somebody has always got something they can sell cheaper than somebody else. I mean, that’s just the key to it.”

For shoppers who value price above all else, salvage stores are a regular stop, much like dollar stores or Goodwill stores. Mary Jane points to one characteristic that a vast majority of her customers have in common: fixed incomes.

A good portion of those people are senior citizens, which the store targets with recurring promotions like Senior Wednesdays. Greene County is home to 54,560 people who receive social security benefits, a group that makes up about 20 percent of the local population. More than 36,000 of those residents are over the age of 65. [3] Another 18 percent of the county’s population receives a different sort of fixed income: food stamps. [4]

The store accepts food stamps, and Mary Jane says there are times when she feels the store does serve a charitable purpose. “We feel like we are really needed in the community,” she says. “We’ve got two or three schools around here that we try to help, and I hardly ever turn anybody down that wants anything, because they need it or they wouldn’t be asking.”

And when times get hard — more than 55 percent of Springfield area K-12 students received free or reduced lunch in school this year [5] — the need to save brings many people to Greene County Freight. “Back when the gas first shot up, I mean we were absolutely overloaded with customers,” Mary Jane says.

To the south, Todd White was opening his own salvage store in Nixa when the recession hit. Nearly hidden from the highway, the corrugated steel building is reached by crossing behind another business and past a pile of tires. Inside, Christian County Freight and Grocery Outlet is essentially a warehouse with prices and goods similar to those found at Greene County Freight. White says these stores can help fill the hole in many families’ budgets in Christian County, where 19 percent of the population receives social security benefits.

“If you can make an extra stop to help fill your list and save 20 to 30 bucks, is it worth the stop? If you’re trying to feed three or four kids at home and one of your breadwinners is unemployed, that’s a big deal,” White says. The difference in prices for certain products, he points out, often more than makes up for any extra gas spent to get to the store.

In a time of such economic despair, he said his store was frequented by more than just fixed-income shoppers and bargain hunters. “When gas goes up, even people who are comfortable — maybe driving their Suburban — it’s a wake-up call,” he says. “So they say, ‘Man, if I could go buy our bread for half of what we were buying it for, why not?’”

Or, as Mary Jane says, some people could “could go anywhere and buy anything they want. They’re just frugal.”

Nancy Heape, Mary Jane’s daughter, now runs many of Greene County Freight’s daily operations. She is quick to note that her store is usually not a one-stop shop, even for her and her husband, but it may still offer significant savings.

“I go into the grocery store and I see, just for the two of us, what I spend, and I think families that have two working parents with just middle-class jobs — I don’t know how they pay for all the things their children do, pay for gas,” she says. “I mean, groceries are expensive, and we’re just an alternative. We don’t have everything, but we do have lots of things.”

The variety is apparent in the store’s customers, who range from opportunistic shoppers seeking bargains [6] to consistent shoppers looking to feed families for less than they could at another store.

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Nancy Heape, left, and Mary Jane Nelson, co-owners of Greene County Freight.
Nancy Heape, left, and Mary Jane Nelson, co-owners of Greene County Freight.

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For its part, the government has explicitly approved the practice of salvaging groceries. On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration explains:

“Some foods that grocery stores, restaurants, and other retailers weren’t able to sell are donated to charity – for example, when a product’s ‘sell-by’ date has passed or a can’s label is torn or missing. Food manufacturers also may donate or sell some products that are near or past the expiration date. Some of these various foods also may end up being sold, at discount prices, in surplus grocery stores, food-salvage stores, or other bargain outlets.

“An expired sell-by date, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that a food has gone bad or is unsafe. Surplus and other bargain stores often keep good food from being wasted and provide nutrition at a good price – when the food has been handled safely.” [7]

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has a process for determining if foods involved in accidents such as truck wrecks or warehouse incidents are safe for consumption. [8] When food is deemed safe for consumption, it is released back to the original owner, but often routed through the company’s insurance adjuster. At that stage, stores like Greene County Freight attempt to purchase the products and get them onto the shelves as quickly as possible.

Some shoppers will always have trouble stepping out of the sleek, clean environment of the typical supermarket and into a salvage store. Greene County Freight isn’t making any attempts to imitate its mainstream competitors. Nancy says her store survives by being committed to a different shopping experience from stores like Walmart — even though Greene County Freight used to stock many of the chain’s discarded items.

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Mary Jane Nelson opened the store with her husband in March 1981 and has been heavily involved in running it since day one. But she says her daughter’s arrival at the store came in a time of relative struggle, when their main business was lagging. “Nancy really stepped up and got the grocery thing going again,” Mary Jane says. “She’s very energetic. She’s not a person who gets down. If things are going bad, she gets on the push and gets it going.”

On the wall of the back office, a U.S. map holds multi-colored pins dotted from Maine to California. They mark the marathons Nancy has run in her mission to complete a race in all 50 states. Nancy is often the fastest moving object in the store. She hustles to re-stock the shelves, trying to keep up with the customers who are more than willing to let the neon price tag overshadow the sell-by date on a cereal box or the dent in a can of baked beans.

“Groceries are expensive, and we’re just an alternative. We don’t have everything, but we do have lots of things.”

Her pace is necessary to operate a business where prices can change as quickly as she can find a Sharpie and a bright scrap of paper. Many days, she is off to the local Price Cutter to check a competitive price.

Walking into Greene County Freight’s strip mall entrance, there is one pod of checkout lines that customers walk around to begin stocking their carts. Buckets of gum and crates of soda haphazardly dot the ends of the aisles. The contents of each row are not specifically labeled. Instead, simple green sheets of paper with typed numbers are posted overhead for reference. The decor is distinctly tied to the family that runs the store, with a pair of antlers hanging over the frozen foods section and the heads of two deer standing watch over the smoke shop. [9]

Nancy says her father, Bob Nelson, has “always been savvy when it comes to an opportunity.” In 1981, when Nancy was 14, he owned a car lot down Kearney Street near the Kansas Expressway. Across the street, a gas station went out of business. Meanwhile, Bob and his wife, Mary Jane, “fell into” a business purchasing salvage groceries from a national truck line. In March of that year, they opened the salvage store in that gas station building, with Mary Jane stepping out of their home to helm the operation.

Greene County Freight was a new step for the Nelsons, as Bob had made his living in the car business for more than 20 years, but Mary Jane said some of the skills have carried over. [10] His knack for prolifically developing contacts got Greene County Freight moving. Mary Jane worked the store when it occupied the old gas station.

After six years of business, as Bob gradually sold off his car business and the land it sat on, the family bought its current location in a strip mall just to the west. The Nelsons later bought the space next door and knocked out the wall to expand the store, adding a frozen foods section. Staying true to the spirit of the business, they bought the freezers from a grocery store that had folded.

The goods come from sources outlined in Bob’s “bible.” In a little book with handwriting only he can read, according to Mary Jane, Bob keeps a detailed list of contacts and sources spanning the store’s 31 years of operation. From the list, he can locate a new shipment of products and maybe even split the load — and thus the cost — with another salvage store in a neighboring town.

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Nancy Heape re-stocks shelves in the frozen foods section.
Nancy Heape re-stocks shelves in the frozen foods section.

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As the store moves into its fourth decade of operation, Mary Jane smiles as she remembers some of the store’s hard times — such as when local powerhouse Bass Pro Shops reorganized its salvage operation and Greene County Freight lost one of its major selling points. “Somewhere along the line, things are going to go haywire,” she says. “And if you can’t get through the bad times, then you can’t appreciate the good times.” It’s that mentality and willingness to improvise that keeps Mary Jane and her daughter on their feet. The store rarely spends a minute doing business without one of them on site.

“If you don’t have to work for something, it’s not worthwhile,” Mary Jane says. “If it’s just dropped in your lap, you tend to not appreciate it sometimes.” With Nancy running in and out of the back office, Mary Jane explains that the store isn’t going anywhere, that it is there to serve its role in neighborhood and any other customers who may be searching for a good deal.

“You know what, if they are interested in that, they can always give it a try,” she says. “If they don’t like it, it’s fine. What they don’t want, somebody else does.”