Bigger than Wal-Mart


To hear some local retailers express it, the advent of a Wal-Mart mega-discount store in Howard County is like the coming of Public Enemy No. 1. The nation's top retailer evokes just such fear, particularly among the owners of smaller shopping stores who find Wal-Mart's aggressive approach overwhelming.

In fact, Wal-Mart comes by its scorch-and-burn reputation honestly. In the early years of the Arkansas-based firm's explosive growth, it was common for Wal-Mart to descend on some rural hamlet, leaving the local mom and pop stores in the dust. The company's deep discount strategy became the villain of every small shopkeeper trying to eek out a living. But with 2,100 large Wal-Mart stores nationwide, it may be time to reassess the giant retailer's image and its impact.

True, on the basis of publicity alone, Wal-Marts attract attention. But in their new metropolitan markets, they no longer seem the popular destination centers they were in Middle America, where folks flocked from miles away. Today, Wal-Mart is likely to be in hot competition with other giant up-and-coming retailers -- as well as with itself. That will be especially true for its new store planned in Ellicott City, a few miles from existing Wal-Marts in Catonsville and Laurel. A bigger question may be whether Wal-Mart can survive its own success.

Some small retailers will fall to the pressures of the new marketplace. But a Wal-Mart in Howard County is as likely as the mom and pops to face formidable competition from other big-hitters who have been drawn to this area's attractive demographics. While Wal-Mart has struggled for a couple of years to find an acceptable location in Howard, B.J.'s Warehouse Club and Best Buy, an electronics store, made Columbia's Snowden Square center one of the gems of the Rouse Co.'s portfolio. And projects such as the Long Gate Shopping Center and another Rouse project near Snowden Square threaten to further cut into Wal-Mart's discount domain.

It is easy to sympathize with local shopkeepers who are no match for any of these behemoths -- on the behemoths' terms, at least. Such has always been the nature of retail. But one need only see the carving-up of Washington's storied Woodward & Lothrop chain to realize that not just the little guys are affected. The changes sweeping retailing are bigger than the moms and pops -- and bigger than Wal-Mart, too.

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