Browning dollar store a hit with the community

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BROWNING, Mont. - Starting a new business is always risky, but fear transforms into joy if the venture works out.

And if the Variety Dollar Store in Browning is the prototype for what's to come, Rose and Joe Bremner and co-owner Carol Henderson may be some of the happiest people around.

"I guess we're kind of the talk of the (area) now," Joe says of the overwhelming success their Blackfeet Indian Reservation store has experienced in its first year. "There's lots of potential here, lots of potential."

The Main Street outlet, which sells hundreds of items for just a dollar each, has been a big hit with the hometown since it opened on Jan. 4, 1999. In fact, the store has been so successful that fourth-year projections have already been met and there's talk of expansion.

The Bremners, who left the reservation for several years to work in Southern California and Colorado, got tired of urban hassles and decided to come home in 1995.

Instead of going back into sales, which sustained the family during their time away, the Bremners decided to do some research.

What they found is that many reservation residents drive to off-reservation communities for a number of their basic needs. The couple's business plan, six months in the making, targeted some of these roving consumers.

"I was looking for something more tangible than sales on commission," Joe explains. "We wanted something where the community would win, too. We were looking for something that would fit with the demographics in Browning," which serves as the kingpin community on the 1.6-million-acre reservation.

That "something" turned out to be a store where residents could get a wide variety of inexpensive items, many of which aren't found elsewhere in town. Ironically, the 1,250-square-foot building they're in now was formerly a five-and-dime store.

It's also had past lives as a house, a pizza parlor and a bakery.

"We used the demographics to our advantage," Joe says. "We've created some competition. We're competing with the bigger outlets. We've maximized our selling space already."

About the same time the Bremners were making plans to open their business, they learned that Henderson had similar ideas. Instead of opening competing stores, they decided to hitch up.

The location of the Variety Dollar Store is near-perfect. Situated a block from busy U.S. Highway 2 and on the main drag to the Blackfeet tribal headquarters, the post office, and a cluster of other downtown businesses, the store attracts customers from far and wide.

Joe says between 500 and 1,000 people a day traipse through the business, with most of them buying something before they leave. Keeping inventory stocked has been a big challenge.

"We just couldn't believe it," Rose says. "After the first week, the shelves were bare."

Joe says, some customers even keep an eye out for delivery trucks and converge on the store as soon as new stock comes in.

"They see a truck outside and say, ?Oh look, it's Christmas again,'" he jokes.

Because the Bremners and Henderson can only use 900 square feet of the building for selling their wares, they're already thinking about expansion. A larger building is for sale farther uptown. Another option may be to add on to the present quarters.

But for now, the Dollar Variety Store owners want to give their business another year before doing anything. Then, if things still look right, they'll dig in deeper, maybe even to sell some types of food.

"It would be nice to get a little bit of everything everyone else has in town," Joe says.

"There's so many things that can be sold at a value," adds Henderson.

All three of the owners put in full shifts at the store. They also hire up to three other workers, depending on what needs to be done. In past months they've helped the local welfare-to-work programs by hiring within. They're also plugged into the area's summer youth employment program.

"It's really become a niche," Joe says. "The dollar store concept is growing so fast. I think it's something you're going to see more of" in other areas of the country.

"You get a good buy for a good price," Henderson adds.

The success of the Browning business has also sparked some new interests with Joe. He's told the Dollar Variety Store story to students on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana and at Blackfeet Community College. Now he's thinking of doing some consulting work to help others get their own businesses up and running.

"I guess we were looking for opportunity and realized that we had it right here," he says.