Businesses brace for Walmart in Woodland

Anticipation high as retailers seek ways to compete

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoThe Walmart in Woodland is set to open on Wednesday.

()

Get ready, Woodland. The world’s largest retailer is coming to your town, and it never sleeps.

Washington’s 51st Walmart store opens the doors at 8 a.m. Wednesday to a mostly welcoming embrace from Woodland’s business and community leaders and many of its citizens. Located adjacent to Interstate 5 at 1486 Dike Access Road, the store is expected to draw customers from surrounding communities in Cowlitz County and north Clark County and, of course, from the nearby highway.

“It remains to be seen how it will affect existing businesses,” said Woodland City Council member Al Swindell. “People are very excited about it, no question. But there’s nervousness. It’s an unknown quantity.”

The store will offer the chain’s typical wide range of merchandise in its 155,980 square feet, but with one significant change from the usual Walmart format. To make room for a large garden section that it hopes will appeal to the community’s outdoor-oriented way of life, the Woodland store will not have a tire and express lube operation, said manager Katie Zadak.

Local reactions were mixed when the company first announced its plans for a Woodland store in 2006, not surprising since Walmart generates strong controversy in many communities over everything from wages and purchasing practices to its overwhelming impact on competitors. But local leaders say the buzz around town is that future customers are eager for the store.

“We’ve been looking for something like this a long time,” said J.J. Burke, a Woodland City Council member. “It will bring in tax revenues and be good for seniors and people on low income. The only thing I’m worried about is traffic.”

‘We ... need growth’

Woodland Chamber of Commerce incoming president Joel Lengyel said the store will attract other retailers. “We desperately need growth, like any small community,” he said. “Walmart is going to be an integral part of our growing.

While supporters will show up for the 7:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony and the store’s 8 a.m. opening, the city’s retailers will have a more muted response.

Many small businesses are trying to find a way to coexist with their giant new neighbor, perhaps in the harmonious way a fly manages to thrive on an elephant’s back.

“A couple of things could happen,” said John Crawford, vice-president of operations for Vancouver-based Hi–School Pharmacy, which operates a store in Woodland. “You may have a decrease in business and sales and you need to make an adjustment, or you could be out of business. Or you may see an increase in business because they bring more traffic to an area.”

Hi-School Pharmacy has faced a challenge from Walmart before, in Hood River, Ore. There, Crawford said, it took steps to adapt after Walmart opened, and the pharmacy was successful up to the time Walgreen’s bought the location. In Woodland, he said, Hi-School Pharmacy has been making adjustments both to the drugstore and to the Ace Hardware, which it also owns, in anticipation of Walmart’s opening.

In both stores, it’s expanding offerings in categories where Walmart is weak and reducing its inventory in the retail giant’s areas of strength. It is focusing on bill payment and shipping services and sales of hunting and fishing licenses. Most importantly, it is emphasizing strong customer service, Crawford said.

The approach is similar to that used by Bob’s Sporting Goods of Longview when Walmart hit that town in the late 1990’s.

Matt Schlecht, the company’s vice president, said Bob’s had turned what had been a sideline to its general clothing and general merchandise into the company’s focus. It wound up thriving on specialized sporting goods, hunting and fishing merchandise, and work apparel not offered in abundance at Walmart, he said.

Bob’s has thrived and is stronger than ever, Schlecht said. “When more competition comes in, people not doing their best can’t make the cut,” he said

Ted Westby, 61, owned his own franchise restaurants and had hoped to open a produce store outside the Longview Walmart. But he ran out of money, so he applied and was hired in the produce department at the Woodland store. As he prepared for the store’s opening last week, Westby said he was impressed by what he saw so far of the company’s management and its highly efficient operations. As he’s approaching retirement, Westby said he feels invigorated by young people like Zadak, who is only 28 years old.

“This is an amazing place,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for young people to come up from nothing. It’s exhilarating to see these young people put all the pieces together.”

Walmart says it will employ about 300 sales associates. The company reports an average wage in its Washington stores of $12.48 per hour.

As part of the opening, Walmart is donating $25,000 to a wide range of community organizations and local schools.