Wal-Mart's Here


You know that any store with soda vending machines out front -- serving its own brand of sodas-- is a heavy hitter.

With its Sam's Choice beverages, smiley greeters and aggressive pricing, Wal-Mart lumbered into the Baltimore market last week. Its new Glen Burnie store will be followed by others in Elkton, Westminster, Aberdeen and possibly White Marsh, western Anne Arundel and Howard counties (although Howard recently rejected a proposed site in Ellicott City as incompatible with zoning).

The chain, which eclipsed Sears and K-mart a couple years back to become the nation's largest retailer, has a most unusual split persona.

Its founder, Sam Walton, who died last spring at age 74, was the world's folksiest billionaire -- some accomplishment considering there aren't many folksy millionaires. The company considers its workers "associates." Wal-Mart customers are greeted at the door and don't have to beg for a clerk's help.

And yet this chain that stresses American-made goods and exudes unpretentiousness and patriotism is viewed by some as the "death star of commerce." Its huge inventory and low prices mowed down mom-and-pop downtowns throughout the South and Midwest. So feared is the discounter that chambers of commerce in Westminster and Laurel flew in an Iowa State University economist to instruct their members on how to compete. The professor, Kenneth E. Stone, has made a name for himself as a student of Wal-Mart's revolution.

The effect here, though, Mr. Stone agrees, could be quite different from what Wal-Mart has wrought in Middle America. Not that Wal-Mart won't do well in the Baltimore market, but consumer choice is more varied. The elephant caused a spectacle on the farm, but it doesn't stand out as much in the jungle.

A Wal-Mart isn't as breathtaking as, say, Leedmark or the Price Club with their sky-high warehouse ceilings and mountains of bulk merchandise. Its selection doesn't run as deep as the "category killers," such as Circuit City or Toys-R-Us. And, as for killing or changing downtown shopping, the suburban malls beat Wal-Mart to it.

The more likely effect of Wal-Mart's march into the Baltimore metro market will be to keep the competition on its toes regarding price and customer service -- all in all, a boon for the consumer.

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