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Rural retailers starting

THOMASVILLE – Residents in once-sleepy Thomasville have started complaining about traffic jams on Route 43, which runs right through the town.

Much of the new traffic is coming from shoppers, squeezed by $4-per-gallon gas, who are staying closer to home instead of driving 100 miles each way to the nearest malls in Mobile or Montgomery.

“I just don’t drive as much,” said Herman Heaton, a 72-year-old retired lumber mill worker, leaning against a Chevy Silverado pickup that now costs him $80 to fill up. “We don’t go to Mobile as much as we used to for shopping.” Heaton said he now spends about $600 a month on gas, about 10 percent of his income and about double what he spent last year.

So now he says he’s shopping locally.

Many stores in rural towns – from small independent shops to local chains – are starting to enjoy a little life after years of seeing customers bypass them for distant malls. While it may not reverse the decades-long decline of small-town shopping, it could lead national mall developers and merchants to rethink where to build and challenge a basic tenet of retailing: Build, and shoppers will come from miles away.

“The whole retail logic has been to build big mass stores that drew from a huge distance,” said Robert Robicheaux, an economic development specialist at the University of Alabama. “Now, we need to reconsider that.”

Some small shops in Thomasville, population 5,500, report more customers as shoppers check out local options first instead of heading further away.