It's a bright October afternoon, and Battle Ground's main drag is bumper to bumper as residents make their rounds to stores and restaurants along the commercial corridor.
The steady traffic on the Clark County city's Main Street, which doubles as state Highway 502 leading west to Interstate 5, provides a stream of business for the retailers along its shores. Complexes anchored by Fred Meyer, Albertsons and Safeway line the route on the east and west sides of Battle Ground's busiest intersection at Main and Southwest 10th Avenue, which is also state Highway 503. Smaller "mom-and-pops," such as florists, cafes and hardware stores, fill in the spaces around the anchors. On this particular day, the parking lots bustle with shoppers carrying parcels and loading grocery bags into their trunks.
It's the kind of hectic activity that retailers relish.
Many expect a change in local shopping patterns when Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Bentonville, Ark.-based parent of Walmart stores, enters the Battle Ground retail mix next year.
The arrival of the world's biggest retailer could prove difficult for some and disastrous for others. Regardless, the change is coming soon, as workers erect the walls of a 154,000-square-foot Walmart store about one mile south of Main Street at Southwest Scotton Way and 10th. The construction project's completion is expected to reshape the town's economy in a big way, as large and small merchants go head to head with what will be the city's largest retail outlet.
"Wal-Mart obviously has an impact wherever they go," said John Crawford, vice president of operations for Hi-School Pharmacy and Hi-School Hardware, which operates Battle Ground's Ace Hardware store.
Wal-Mart uses a volume-discount model that undercuts prices at other grocery and retail chains, as well as most mom-and-pop stores. The new Battle Ground store will carry groceries, which bring customers in the doors more frequently and, as a result, generates more nonfood sales. It also will feature an optical center and an in-store pharmacy, along with clothing, electronics, housewares and home furnishings.
The new Walmart store's impact is likely to affect every grocery store within a five-mile radius — from the WinCo Foods off state Highway 503 and 119th Street to Battle Ground's trio of national and regional grocers. Those retailers all will likely lose sales to the Walmart, especially at first, said Pam Lindloff, an associate vice president and retail expert with NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson's Vancouver office.
Drug and variety stores are also at risk, Lindloff said, due to a combination of factors that include the Walmart store's newness and Battle Ground's stagnant population growth.
Wal-Mart's local expansion
• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. operates three stores in Vancouver: 221 N.E. 104th Ave.; 9000 N.E. Highway 99 and 430 S.E. 192nd Ave.
• Battle Ground: Construction is underway on a 154,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter planned to open in 2014 at Scotton Way and state Highway 503 (Southwest 10th Avenue).
• Salmon Creek area in Vancouver: The site has been cleared of two vacant buildings at 12923 and 12925 N.E. Rockwell Drive, a 14-acre tract where Wal-Mart proposes to build a two-story Supercenter east of Interstate 205 at Northeast 134th Street. Construction is in the early planning stages, and no project timeline is available, said Rachel Wall, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores.
• Vancouver Plaza: In July, Wal-Mart opened its first area Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery and pharmacy store in a 41,000-square-foot portion of the former 90,000-square-foot WinCo Foods store in the Vancouver Plaza shopping center between Fourth Plain Boulevard and state Highway 500.
• Central Vancouver at Fourth Plain Boulevard and Grand: Wal-Mart has demolished a building and broken ground on a vacant Fred Meyer site planned as a second Walmart Neighborhood Market-store concept. The company would not disclose an expected opening date for the store.
• Orchards area in Vancouver: There are no updates or construction plans for a Walmart Supercenter store at Eastgate Plaza, south of Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard between 137th and 147th avenues.
• Portland: One of the area's smallest Walmart Supercenters, an 85,900-square-foot store at the Hayden Meadows shopping complex on the east side of Interstate 5, is scheduled to open this fall.
Recent census statistics for the town of roughly 18,130 residents show that Battle Ground is not the draw that it was in the mid-2000s. Through the century's first decade, the town's population grew by an average of 5.8 percent annually. That growth has slowed to an annual average of 1.1 percent in the past three years.
The slower growth "makes it pretty hard to create new demand," Lindloff said. "The grocery budget is the grocery budget. Just because there's another store in town doesn't mean (households) will increase that budget."
She said she expects even the most store-loyal Battle Ground customers to gravitate to Walmart when the store opens as the city's newest attraction.
Battle Ground's biggest
Nearly the size of two soccer fields, the Battle Ground Walmart store will be even bigger than the town's largest retail store, a 130,000-square-foot Fred Meyer at Main and 10th since 2000. The Fred Meyer store was built during a period of rapid Clark County expansion for chain supermarkets, which made it tough on the area's local grocery stores. From 1999 through 2001, five independently owned grocers were closed countywide, including a Battle Ground store called Meyer's Marketplace.
It now has been almost 14 years since Fred Meyer opened its Battle Ground grocery and variety store, one of seven Clark County locations operated by Portland-based Fred Meyer Stores Inc., owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.
A Fred Meyer spokeswoman said her company is no stranger to competition from Walmart stores throughout the Pacific Northwest. Battle Ground's Walmart will be the megaretailer's fifth Clark County store, including its newly opened grocery-only Walmart Neighborhood Market near Westfield Vancouver mall.
Another Neighborhood Market is under construction at the Vancouver intersection of Fourth Plain Boulevard and Grand Avenue, and a sixth county Walmart — a two-story Supercenter — is planned for Vancouver's Salmon Creek area near the confluence of Interstates 5 and 205.
"All I can tell you is that we focus on our stores, our customers and our business," said Melinda Merrill, the Fred Meyer spokeswoman. "We compete well with Wal-Mart all over the Northwest and believe competition is the best thing for consumers."
Fred Meyer and Safeway have updated store formats throughout the region, and ramped up store loyalty programs and discounts to retain customers.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Rachel Wall would not disclose the specific month the Battle Ground store is expected to open, other than to say it is "on track for a 2014 opening."
Wal-Mart does not disclose development costs for its new-store developments. Clark County property records left blank the purchase price of the company's 15.6-acre Battle Ground site. Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust purchased the property in June.
"Wal-Mart likes to own their property," said T.J. Fontinette, who is developing the Mill Creek Town Center retail complex, which will be anchored by the Walmart store. Fontinette's local company, Principal Properties, retained about 5 acres in the center and is marketing pads at the site to quick-service restaurants, small shops, bank branches and hair salons. Fontinette would not confirm earlier announcements by a city official that restaurants Carl's Jr. and Panda Express plan to locate in the center.
His company also is searching for national retailers to fill a 17-acre retail development called Scotton Landing on property just south of the Mill Creek Town Center.
"We haven't had anything closed or confirmed," Fontinette said.
The city of Battle Ground chipped in to welcome the new retail developments by building a $4.8 million signaled intersection to accommodate in-and-out traffic at Scotton Way and 10th. City officials have said they welcome the Walmart store for its potential sales-tax revenue and jobs. They also have said they don't think a Walmart store will detract from Main Street's retail health. Battle Ground retailers serve a large geographic area outside the city, including Hockinson, La Center and Ridgefield.
Wall said the new Walmart store will create approximately 300 full- and part-time jobs. She said Washington Walmart stores pay full-time employees an hourly wage of approximately $13.27, and that eligible associates are offered "a variety of affordable health and well-being benefits," including health care coverage and 401(k) retirement plans.
Still, the megaretailer is drawing mixed reviews from a business community that is already fighting for dwindling sales.
Retail sales have been slowly improving in Battle Ground, according to figures supplied by the Washington State Department of Revenue. In 2012, annual sales topped $183.55 million, up 6.5 percent from 2011 but still down 7.7 percent from total sales of around $198.8 million in 2007 at the height of the local housing and spending boom.
Sage retail advice
Crawford, who said he has dealt with competition from Wal-Mart many times over his years working for Hi-School, advised store owners to change merchandise if they stock the same products Walmart stores carry.
"I keep a Wal-Mart folder," he said. "You need to know what Wal-Mart is strong in, and if you're in one of those categories, you may want to think about something different."
Some retail experts predict Battle Ground shoppers will try the new Walmart and then return to their regular habits.
"It's that shiny new penny that comes into town," said Deborah Ewing, a commercial real estate broker with Vancouver-based Eric Fuller and Associates Inc. "Everyone will go there at first, and then they'll go back to their normal routines."
Ewing also suspects most who are true Walmart shoppers are already driving out of the area to shop.
"I think people will tend to go where they have developed a relationship," she said.
That's precisely the reason La Center resident Tammy Johnson said she won't often frequent Battle Ground's new Walmart, although she shops in the town at least once a week.
"I try to support local businesses," Johnson said.
Other Battle Ground merchants say they're not at all worried about competition from the coming Walmart. The new store isn't expected to have a tire center that would compete with his store, said Rick Harris, who co-owns Dick's Tire Factory, a family business at 510 W. Main St. in the center of town.
"We already knew they (Wal-Mart) were getting out of the tire game," Harris said, "so it wasn't something we went to bed worrying about."
But Harris said he and his business partners, brother Scott Harris and sister Dana Gumringer, are concerned about other Battle Ground merchants as the Walmart store's opening draws near. Their father, Dick Harris, started the family-owned business in 1967.
"We feel like we're losing that small-town intimacy," Rick Harris said about Wal-Mart's arrival in Battle Ground, "because a lot of these small businesses will have to compete with them regularly."