The Nasco Retail Store has closed its doors permanently, idling 46 employees as of Monday, June 1.

For decades, the Fort Atkinson farm and home outlet has been an anchor in Fort Atkinson’s retail sector, a go-to for educators and the public seeking a variety of products ranging from art and craft supplies and science kits to health, family and consumer education, farm and ranch products, and more.

However, product needs and shopping habits are changing, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and Nasco must change with them, officials indicated.

“K-12 schools and students across the country have been impacted by COVID-19 as the schools have been forced to shut down and transition to distance learning,” Nasco Vice President of Sales Chris McLean said.

“Additional uncertainty surrounds what the back-to-school process will look like this fall. As a partner and provider to K-12 institutions nationwide, Nasco Education is both sensitive to and impacted by the evolving environment,” he added.

He noted that Nasco proudly has served the K-12 education industry for more than 75 years out of Fort Atkinson and will continue to do so.

“We are adapting to the changing needs, including expanding digital and distance solutions, SEL (social and emotional learning) solutions, and professional development for teachers,” McLean said. “We have had to make other changes in response, including the closure of the retail store. While we will no longer offer walk-in service via the retail store, we will continue to serve both local and national customers from our location in Fort Atkinson. Our Distribution Center, customer service and e-commerce (departments) all remain open and ready to serve.”

Nasco Education informed employees of the changes in a letter Thursday.

“Our customers’ environment is transforming, and we are transforming our business in response,” the letter reads. “This transformed business structure will drive changes in our structure and skill sets.

“While some of the transformation is exciting and positive, there are a number of aspects that are significantly more difficult. The most difficult of all are the decisions we must make which will impact our employee base,” it said.

The statement explains that as Nasco confronts not only the short-term impacts on the business from reduced revenue, but also must prepare for a future of complex, value-add solutions to customers, it has had to make some very difficult decisions, including permanent changes to the employee base.

Those changes include the permanent closure of the retail operations in Fort Atkinson.

“While we have always treasured this intimate relationship with our local community, closure of the store will allow us to dedicate our full focus and attention to the needs of our customers nationwide,” the statement said.

Nasco also will be decreasing the size of its Distribution Center staff “to align our capacity with the volume of expected work” and be making smaller changes in other departments “to align capacity and resource requirements.”

Impacted employees have been contacted by their managers, and Human Resources Department employees are working with each individual on supporting his or her transition, including outplacement services, access to benefits and severance, the statement said.

In 2017, Nasco combined its two outlet stores into one so it could expand its administration area. There reportedly are no plans right now for the store building at 801 Janesville Ave.

With the recent closure of ShopKo, the Nasco Retail Store was among the largest of Fort Atkinson’s 80 retailers.

Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Carrie Chisholm said that this is a big loss for the community.

“It is heartbreaking to see a business like the Nasco store close, especially in a community where the employees are known by name as your friends and neighbors,” shesaid. “Mike Matley and his team at the Nasco Arts and Crafts Outlet have been a part of so many memory-making moments in Fort Atkinson. Science fairs and FFA projects and art classes all counted on the Nasco store’s treasure trove of resources. There truly was nothing else like it anywhere.

“We had our own ‘Little House on the Prairie’ general store, where you could literally find everything from horse bridles to children’s games to fine art supplies,” she continued. “It was akin to shopping in a magic house, as you never knew what delightful surprises you’d find in the next aisle.”

The chamber chief noted that this business also has played a key role in Fort Atkinson’s tourism industry, as buses coming for the Fireside Dinner Theatre performances often made stops at Jones Market and the Nasco Outlet Stores.

“When visitors inquired of chamber staff what they should see and do, we loved directing them to the Nasco Outlets. It was just a very unusual experience,” she said.

Chisholm said that while unfortunate, she is learning that closings such as this should not be unexpected, especially during this economic crisis.

“In 2019, more than 9,300 store closings occurred in ‘The Retail Apocalypse,’” Chisholm said. “Business Insider is estimating that as many as 12,000 major chain stores could close in 2020. Brick-and-mortar retailers have the most to lose, as they incur higher costs than online sellers, but they also are the first to support local causes and reinvest in their own communities.”

Chisholm pointed out that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the general public has had two months to shop from their sofas, but they need to realize the long-term affects of continuing that behavior.

“People will wonder if we couldn’t do more to save the Nasco store. We certainly couldn’t control the impact of nationwide school closures on Nasco’s bottom line,” Chisholm said. “But we do have a choice going forward about shaping the kind of community in which we want to live. Shopping, eating and recreating locally keeps these dollars in our own backyards.”

She reported that the chamber has sold almost $90,000 in local gift certificates in the last two months as area residents supported local businesses.

“We need people to get out and spend them, now, while businesses need a huge influx of cash,” Chisholm said. “Otherwise, we’ll be writing the eulogy of yet another local resource lost to COVID-19.”

Originally known as the National Agricultural Supply Co., Nasco’s roots date back to 1936 when Fort Atkinson High School vocational agriculture teacher Norman Eckley became frustrated by the scarcity of visual teaching materials and a central source for buying agricultural teaching supplies. After three years of research, he queried county agents in 1939, asking whether they would support a one-order service that offered all the hard-to-find technical agricultural items from one source. The answer was a resounding “yes.”

Nasco was established to fill that need, with its first printed catalog distributed in 1940. The post-World War II accelerated interest in farm technology and the GI training program boosted Nasco’s sales. In 1947, Hugh Highsmith and Leo W. Roethe took the helm of Nasco and launched a major expansion program. During that time, Nasco became an official supplier for purebred livestock associations, supplying hundreds of promotional items, and then it added equipment for artificial breeding, DHIA, veterinarians, crops and soil testing, horticultural and agronomy supplies.

From its start in a two-car garage, Nasco has grown to an enterprise publishing more than 35 different catalogs, with an annual circulation exceeding 5 million, to customers in education, agriculture, health-care training, and lab sampling worldwide featuring materials available for a wide array of educational, training, and production needs. It leads the marketplace in educational kits, STEM/STEAM, dissection, agriculture, lab sampling and health-care education products.

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