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CEDAR FALLS — Fleet Farm’s 240 employees have been on the job for weeks, preparing for Friday’s 7 a.m. grand opening.

But Wednesday evening was a special event for the new store at 400 W. Ridgeway Ave. selling a wide range of products from groceries and apparel to supplies for hunting, farming and construction. Family and friends joined staff along with builders, community leaders, and “everyone who was a partner to open this,” said Nick Widi, Fleet Farm’s chief retail operations officer.

Employees in orange and black Fleet Farm polo shirts gathered just inside the entryway shortly before 4 p.m., clapping as customers arrived. After a brief presentation and ribbon cutting, people were free to explore the store and make purchases.

It was a “soft opening” that continues Thursday, when the general public can begin shopping at the 190,000-square-foot store. Friday’s grand opening kicks off six days of prizes and giveaways leading up to the long Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally the start of the holiday shopping season.

Fleet Farm is located on 49 acres at Ridgeway’s intersection with Iowa Highway 58 just north of U.S. Highway 20. A Fleet Farm convenience store that includes nine gas pumps and a car wash stands near the corner at the east end of the property.

The site is just over a mile south of a busy retail area where stores such as Target, Walmart, Menards, Pet Supplies Plus, Scheels, and Blain’s Farm and Fleet sell products that can also be purchased at the new Fleet Farm.

“We compete with all of those (stores) in most of our markets,” said Widi, noting people coming from Ridgeway or Highway 20 will see his store first. “We thought the location was perfect.”

Widi said he expects much of the remaining site work on the property to be completed by Friday. Landscaping around retention ponds near the gas station was still underway Wednesday, with machinery moving big piles of dirt, and work continued on a pylon sign next to Highway 20.

Across the parking lot to the west is the main store, with “right around 150,000 square feet of retail space,” said Widi, a cavernous space featuring large signs on the back wall guiding people to different sections of the store. “Certainly when people come in there’s going to be the ‘wow’ factor. Customers are going to find that we have something for everyone.”

That includes a “light grocery” section – which is part of the design for new stores – with packaged foods and freezer items like pizza as well as beverages such as juice, pop, wine, and beer. They’ve also got pet food, toys and other items for household animals. Additionally, it offers an expanded number of services that include knife sharpening, screen repair, custom painting and more.

As with Fleet Farm’s 44 other stores, the company’s newest location features clothing, footwear, furniture, automotive parts, athletic equipment, hardware, paint, toys, snowblowers, lawnmowers, electrical and plumbing supplies, lumber, and various items needed on a farm. People can also find supplies for fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor or water activities. Additionally, the store includes an auto service center.

Large items can be ordered at computerized kiosks throughout the store. “We’ll do a full-service loading in our yard,” said Widi, which vehicles can drive into.

Adequate floor space is dedicated to merchandise so customers can see and touch it. One of the products they’re displaying in a new way is a series of deer stands that have been assembled and attached to upright logs in the hunting section.

There are also seasonal items like rows of lighted Christmas trees, stockings and potted poinsettias. In the spring, that area will transition to a lawn and garden section which will be supplemented with an outdoor garden center.

Widi noted that “seasonal” goes beyond decorations to encompass supplies for activities associated with certain times of the year. Examples are fruit and vegetable canning or collecting sap from trees to make maple syrup.

“What you will find is when we have something in our stores we don’t dabble in it,” he said. “We’re all in.”

Originally known as Mills Fleet Farm, the 64-year-old company also has stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Its corporate office is in Appleton, Wis.

“Cedar Falls has been on our road map for some time,” said Widi. “This is our fifth store in Iowa.”

The first one in the state opened in Mason City nearly two decades ago and, earlier this fall, a store was added in Cedar Rapids. Next year another Iowa store will open in Waukee along with one in Rapid City, S.D.

This week, though, is all about Cedar Falls and Friday’s grand opening. Widi predicts a big crowd lined up when doors open at 7 a.m.

“There will be literally hundreds of people waiting outside,” he said.

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