What to do about Walmart?

A 152,495-square-foot Walmart Supercenter planned for south Gardnerville will be a double-edged sword for the local business community, a mixed bag of new jobs and low mark-ups.

"There was a time when such news would create a knee-jerk reaction in chambers in small communities, when everyone would become afraid and resistant," Bill Chernock, executive director of the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce, told a group of members on Aug. 19. "But as a small business, you can not only deal with a retailer like that, but you can benefit from it."

Chernock pointed to an estimated 300 new jobs to be produced by the superstore. He was hopeful construction would also boost an ailing industry.

"Hopefully, they will use a lot of local subcontractors," he said. "Down the line, we should see significant revenues coming in."

Chernock said a Walmart Supercenter will also pull people into the community from Mono County and other southern locations.

"They will have more reason to come this direction. The whole south of Gardnerville will benefit," he said. "The people who come will probably have a meal, and will probably do other kinds of shopping."

But Chernock didn't underestimate the impact Walmart will have on small businesses. Within the next six months, depending on the construction schedule of the store, the chamber is planning to develop a workshop that will help small businesses compete with the giant retailer.

"How can small businesses make the best of this situation?" Chernock said. "As a small retailer, what are you forced to do when the big guy comes to town?"

Chernock said the answer is to provide value, in more ways than one.

"Fill the niches that the big stores inevitably leave," he said. "It's about customer service, a tighter message for a smaller group of people. Maybe deal with returns and exchanges better. Maybe get to know your customers personally. Tell them special orders are not an issue.

"It's hard work. It's not an easy thing. But small business people can do it."

Mike Lira, chief operation officer for Lira's Supermarkets, a small independent grocer that opened its third store in Minden last year, said Walmart and other large retailers won the price war a long time ago.

"We're a small independent store, and they are a giant national chain," Lira said. "We will never be able to buy products as cheap as they do. A lot of times at Costco and Walmart, we can buy stuff cheaper than from our wholesalers. We will never win the battle over price. We'd rather concede that and focus on other things we do."

Those other things, Lira said, include a focus on customer service, consumer choice, fresh produce, meats and deli products.

"I really wouldn't change too much," he said. "Just continue focusing on our customers, on our meats and produce and service deli, avenues that Walmart doesn't really go for. Price points are what they're after. We have a different kind of business model."

In a previous interview, Lira told a story about his father, company founder Jim Lira, who once drove to Stockton, Calif., to buy fresh lobster tails for customers celebrating their anniversary because their own store in Rio Vista, Calif., didn't have any at the time.

"The Walmart thing is all about price," Lira said. "We work more along the lines of when people come in and ask for something, we do everything in our power to get it. People still appreciate that."

So far, that personalized kind of service has paid off.

"Our customer count is up," Lira said. "I'm sure we'll definitely feel the effects, but at this point, what we'd lose to that type of business, we're already losing to the stores on the hill anyway."

Amy Davis, communications specialist for Raley's Family of Fine Stores, said the Gardnerville Raley's has been part of the Carson Valley community for more than 35 years.

"The Raley's employs many Gardnerville residents, some with 15-35 year careers with the company," she said. "Some got their first job with us. Our colleagues are incredibly close to our loyal customer base - they've seen over three generations of customers come through the store."

Davis said value means more than price.

"Especially in these tough times, customers need to feel valued and appreciated for choosing to spend their hard-earned dollars with us," she said. "They need to feel good about the companies to which they are giving their business."

Raley's is lowering prices every week, Davis said, but is also focusing on customer service, creating a friendly and comfortable shopping experience, as well as helping the greater community.

"As a family-owned company, our customers are very important to us," she said. "We're proud to support the Carson Valley Community Food Closet through our Food For Families program, sending 100 percent of donations received in the store directly to the food closet to help feed the hungry in the area. We also support major community events through our involvement in the Kid's Fishing Derby, Carson Valley Days and the annual Relay for Life."

Jason Spohr, owner of Carson Valley CarQuest, which opened last year in south Gardnerville, said he has mixed feelings about Walmart coming to town.

"I'm sure bringing in business will be good," he said. "Everyone wants to see the town have a growing economy. I haven't decided if they are a competitor or not. They do sell some auto-related parts, but they have no counter person to help you. At the same time, I think its good to bring people to the south end of town."

Like Lira, Spohr said Walmart probably sells some of his products cheaper than he can buy them from wholesalers. But he said his store offers more than car parts; it offers quality service and automotive expertise.

"If customers already know what they want, they can go in there (Walmart), and we can't touch their price of oil," he said. "But I don't see it as a threat to my store in particular. Here, service people give you what you need."

Other retailers in the Valley are more skeptical about a new Walmart.

"The thing I look at is why they're opening here. Retail is not that strong in Douglas County," said Archie Reed, owner of the small Stratton Center gift shop Candles 'N Crafts. "We've got empty retail outlets all over town. There are empty ones everywhere you look. We just had a shopping center go bankrupt in Minden, and probably another one getting ready to go bankrupt in Gardnerville, yet we're still building more retail space. It just doesn't make sense."

Reed and his wife Peggy first opened their store in Minden about eight years ago, around the same time larger chain retailers were opening in north county.

"We went into business when the big box stores on the hill were opening," he said. "We started in crafts supplies, but then Michael's opened up with like 20,000 square feet."

Despite the competition, when the Reeds moved to the Stratton Center about five years ago, they were able to build a loyal customer base.

"I'm not sure if Walmart will hurt us or not," he said. "We kind of developed a clientele that knows who we are and what kind of quality we carry. We've never had anything that big that close. You can't know about that kind of thing until it happens. I'm not thrilled about it."


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