Beating the beast

The news seemed to fall out of the sky and land on Gardnerville like an A-bomb. Or, more specifically, a Wal-bomb.

A 152,495-square foot Walmart Supercenter, pharmacy and all, to be dropped like a cement block on the south side of Gardnerville.

Local business owners are still reeling from that imagined thud. Walls erected like the ramparts of a fortress. Cannons peeking from the embrasures, loaded with excessive inventory, every colorful sundry ever conceived and BOOM! A blast of low mark-ups. A price-ripping, shelf-shattering offensive.

To many, news of the Walmart seemed like a declaration of war on local business, and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Up and down Main Street moms and pops are scraping to pay their overhead, to pay their bills and keep their doors open. Even though the stock market has stabilized to some degree, even though last week the Fed proclaimed the recession technically over, the effects of the crash are far from disappearing.

"Shop local" is the mantra. Keep your money in the community. But that's a hard thing to do if you don't have a job. Spending is not a priority. Food, shelter and family are priorities. And, if you're lucky enough to have kept your job, you must now live with the constant threat of layoffs, a phantom terror that buzzes through your workplace like some stealth, virulent fly, blotting the sky black and picking at your nerves. You too are not spending. Either way, local retail joints are feeling the lack of consumerism, a heavy lack that pulls downward, as if the walls were closing, as if the floor were sinking.

"The thing I look at is why they're opening here. Retail is not that strong in Douglas County," Archie Reed, owner of the small Stratton Center gift shop Candles 'N Crafts, said last month about the proposed Walmart. "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."

"This will be the nail in the coffin that buries Gardnerville," one business owner cried at a town board meeting. Two weeks later, protesters were gathered in front of the town office, waving brightly-painted signs. A Walmart happy face with pernicious fangs and satanic horns. Hundreds of petitioned signatures. Formal critiques disseminated to the county heads.

Whether an organized effort to balk the behemoth will work is far beyond my psychic abilities. However, I do know that Walmart has the proper commercial zoning to proceed. If developers pass the county's design review, they'll most likely build on the site between Service Drive and the Carson Valley Medical Center.

I'm not stoked about the store, but I don't believe it would be the end of the world for local business. I could be wrong, but I don't want to sell any business short. Many have already honed their competitive edge to battle the commercial development in north county. A Walmart in the Valley would be a blow, no doubt, but hopefully not a fatal blow. Not if business owners step up to the challenge.

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

Despite the competition, when Reed and his wife Peggy moved their business to the Stratton Center about five years ago, they were able to build a loyal customer base.

"We kind of developed a clientele that knows who we are and what kind of quality we carry," he said.

So what else can business owners do to compete with Walmart?

"Fill the niches that the big stores inevitably leave," said Bill Chernock, executive director of the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce. "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."

Aggressive marketing is also important. Those seeing an upswing in business are the ones stoking creative fires, burning down the old models and finding ways to get people in their stores.

"I wanted to do something fun the community could get involved with," Leslie Dupont, owner of Cafe Girasole in Minden, said last month about a promotion.

Obsessed with sunflowers, or girasole in Italian, Dupont designed a contest that exposed her store's ubiquitous logo and drew people in. The person who brought her the largest sunflower by Sept. 11 received a $50 gift certificate.

"I just know there is a monster out there," Dupont said.

Last week, she reported that an 18-inch sunflower picked from someone's garden had won the contest; however, she'd decided to reward the runner-ups with a free lunch as well.

"It was a great time; it was awesome," she said. "It brought us new customers."

The Genoa Trading Co., a small artisan shop next to the Genoa Bar, spent the month of August luring customers with a slew of specials. Discounts, gift bags, raffles. A food drive for the Douglas Animal Welfare Group.

"I'm just trying to give back to the people who've kept me in business," owner Christine Cole said.

Or how about Minden optometrist Somer Lyons? She'll be donating her eye exam fees on Oct. 6 as part of the World Sight Day Challenge, a campaign to provide quality eyecare in developing countries.

The point is not to wait for people to come to you. Get out and make an impression on the community. As Mike Lira of Lira's Supermarkets told me, Walmart won the price war a long time ago. The megacorp can often sell products cheaper than other suppliers can buy them wholesale. If Walmart does come to town, competitive pricing may play a part in an overall strategy, but I doubt pricing alone will ever vanquish the Goliath.

What will prevail is not strict control over the community's purse-strings, but benevolent control over the community's heart-strings. The businesses that succeed in this town are the ones actively participating in the culture. The ones sponsoring and vanguarding the Valley's many events. The ones taking the lead when tragedy strikes. Raising money for an injured child. Or walking all night in Lampe Park to support the fight against cancer.

These are the businesses with a real offense, that refuse to be defined by defensiveness. So I say come and get it, Walmart. No superstore is going to break this Valley's spirit.


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