50 Years Ago: Fed Mart opens in Window Rock
Life changed for residents of the Window Rock area on March 19, 1968.
That’s when Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai officially signed a lease with the Fed-Mart Corp. to have one of its stores open up in Window Rock, making it possible for reservation residents to buy food, clothing and other staples at cheap prices.
Once the store was open later that year, residents of the Window Rock area no longer had to travel to Gallup to buy reasonably priced merchandise.
In fact, once the store opened across from DNA-Peoples’ Legal Services at the junction of Navajo Route 12 and State Highway 264, it was not unusual for border town residents stopping in at Fed Mart to buy groceries, hardware or clothing because the prices for many items were cheaper than at any store in Gallup.
This would be the 36th store to be opened by the company in the United States and within a month of its opening, it would post the largest gross profits of any store in the chain and would continue to be very profitable to the company for more than a decade.
Nakai would later say that getting Fed Mart officials to agree to set up shop on the reservation was probably one of his biggest accomplishments during his time as chairman.
At first, he said, the company couldn’t see how they could make a profit by setting up a store in an area with only a few thousand residents, especially given the fact that there were no other stores in the area and trucks would have to travel several hundred miles to keep the store in stock.
What convinced company officials to take the plunge was not the inducements offered by the tribe — cheap rent and use of tribal training funds for the hiring and training of store employees. Instead it was the surveys the company took of prices that reservation residents had to pay for basic supplies in their communities.
The study, which used figures supplied by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, found that most Navajos living in the Arizona portion of the reservation were still going to trading posts to buy their food and other supplies. And the BIA figures showed that prices at the trading posts were, on the average, more than twice what they were in Gallup.
Trading post owners claimed that the extra costs were due to extra transportation costs and the credit long-time customers were given, which allowed them to pay their bills after they sold wool or lambs.
Stories in the Navajo Times and the Gallup Independent after Fed Mart opened said stores in Gallup were affected, and some were forced to lower prices to compete with Fed Mart and keep customers from the Arizona portion of the reservation coming to their stores.
On the whole, however, Gallup was not affected as much as it could have been because many reservation residents would continue traveling to Gallup on the weekends to buy liquor and make car payments.
The Navajo Inn, a package liquor store located just east of Tse Bonito, New Mexico, reported its sales increasing once Fed Mart was opened because some area residents would go there to buy their liquor after doing the weekly shopping at Fed Mart, reducing the number of trips they would take to Gallup.
The signing of the lease took place in San Diego, the headquarters of the company, and Nakai brought with him several tribal officials.
A news release issued by the company said that Miss Navajo, Thelma Pablo (described in the release as a “lovely brown-eyed brunette”), gave Sol Price, the owner of the company, a turquoise bolo tie as a memento of the occasion.
Price would wear that tie whenever he came to visit the store in the future and was often seen wearing it at other events off the reservation as well.
One of the stipulations that Fed Mart signed in the lease was an agreement was that most of the employees at the store would be tribal members and the store would eventually have Navajos in the management.
There were no deadlines set in the lease on when Navajos would be hired in management levels, and in the 70s, the company would be criticized for not promoting Navajos to the top management. Company officials, on the other hand, responded that more than 95 percent of the employees at the store were Navajo.
By the end of the first year of operation, the Fed Mart store in Window Rock had made such a profit that company officials were saying they were planning to set one up at every major community on the reservation.
That never happened but they did set up a couple of more stores and held a monopoly until Basha’s came some 16 years later.
Fed Mart would eventually grow to 45 stores, mostly in California and the Southwest, but by the late 1970s, it would be running in the red and the company sold two thirds of the stores to the Hugo Mann chain but it kept the ones on the reservation.
The company folded in 1982 and the stores on the reservation were sold to other companies.