Store wars break out in retail sector Kmart, Caldor brace at Chatham Mall for Wal-Mart and Target; Old-timers vs. newcomers; Battle likely to center on image and service, analysts predict


Do or die.

That's the mantra of two veteran, national discount stores on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City as they gear up for the retail free-for-all that pits them against each other -- as usual -- and against the two new kids in town.

As the anchor stores of Chatham Mall on U.S. 40, Kmart and Caldor's strategy to fend off Target and Wal-Mart is to be prettier, shinier and friendlier.

Because there are only so many dollars to go around, the real battlefield has become image and customer service, retail analysts said. None of the retailers has a lock on shopper loyalty, analysts and consumers said.

The new retailers already have a fresh image. Target officials say their stores are more upscale and cleaner. Wal-Mart officials say that when their Ellicott City store is finished in the spring, it will offer the best value, service and convenience.

The old-timers find themselves scrambling to remodel their stores, having more employees on the floor to help customers, installing coupon dispensers in the aisles and opening in-store restaurants.

Kmart and Caldor have "already established an identity. They just have to maintain their share," said Mark A. Millman, president of Millman Search Group Inc., a retail consulting company.

Both retailers are old hands at providing shoppers with their laundry detergent, toys, crackers and other merchandise.

But their status is threatened with the opening of Target -- one of the nation's fastest-growing retailers -- at Long Gate Center on -- Montgomery Road, and construction of the Wal-Mart -- one of the nation's most profitable retailers -- farther east on U.S. 40.

Customers say they can never predict which of the three stores they will patronize -- because their choice depends on weekly sales.

"Whenever new players enter the market, there is some initial curiosity, and we expect to see people checking Target out," said Natalie Swirdovich, Chatham Mall manager. "But competition tends to strengthen players in the field."

The retailers' rush to enhance customer service is their idea of being "better merchants," Millman said. "They just can't sit idle with two major competitors knocking at their door, because if they do, the retail world will pass them by."

And spokesmen for Kmart and Caldor -- which opened on U.S. 40 in 1976 and 1984, respectively -- say they won't allow that.

Today, the Kmart -- like other Kmarts throughout the Baltimore area -- reopens after a storewide renovation. The chain has changed its stores' layouts to focus on the new "pantry," a grocery-storelike section that features deli meats and cheeses, frozen food and other groceries.

Beyond that section is the stores' regular fare of books, office supplies and curtains.

The Ellicott City store has also installed a photo developing and enlarging center. During its last remodeling in 1989, a Little Caesar's restaurant opened in the store.

Whether the new design and newer features will attract customers from Target remains to be seen.

"Now I can get my milk and bread at Kmart. It's one-stop shopping," said Carol Massey of Ellicott City, while perusing Kmart's aisles for laundry detergent. "It'll be nicer once I get used to it."

Another customer, Anne Brown of Elkridge, said: "It's going to take me ages to find my way around. It feels kind of funny doing grocery shopping in Kmart. I guess it's good for some people who don't want to stop at another store."

But other customers recognized the ploy as an effort by Kmart to fend off competition.

"The store really needed to do this," said Cleary Lanaham of Eldersburg. "Competition is fierce. And everyone is going to Target now because it's new."

At the other end of Chatham Mall, Caldor is banking on self-serve price-check scanners -- computerized monitors that a customer can use to scan the bar code of an item and see the price -- and customer service teams whose sole job is to answer questions.

The new features -- which mirror Target's -- were instituted for the chain this year, said store manager Harry Anuszewski.

The scanners are nifty, but practically worthless, customers said.

"It's pretty cool, but you know what?" asked Erica Vallano of tTC Catonsville, who frequents both stores. "They are pretty good at marking the prices on the merchandise already."

Said Anuszewski: "All of the retailers have similar merchandise and similar prices. It's better service that will bring customers back."

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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