The lid has been lifted at Leedmark.
The area's newest retailer, which opens its doors tomorrow in Glen Burnie, was officially previewed today and the veil of secrecy imposed on the store was lifted -- somewhat.
The mammoth operation on Chesapeake Center Drive near the Beltway cost $10 million to build and involved months of covert planning. It is being billed as a "one-stop shopping hybrid market" and the first of its kind in the United States.
Company officials say the store, which has approximately 130,000 square feet of sales space, combines elements of 18 different categories of stores, including a department store, discount store, supermarket, hardware store, women's boutique, bookstore, sporting goods store, men's store and bakery.
Leedmark officials today still refused to discuss some specifics, including the volume of business they are hoping for in the first year.
Some of the secrecy can be attributed to a tradition among French businessmen to be guarded in their dealings with the press. Leedmark is an offshoot of the Edouard Leclerc Group of France.
At first glance, Leedmark appears to be nothing less than a mammoth warehouse store, only brighter and with snazzier displays.
Unlike many warehouses, however, some categories of goods at Leedmark may occupy more space than others but no category appears to be lacking in substantial inventory.
If the number of registers is any indication, Leedmark is expecting large crowds. There are 48 checkout aisles lining the front of the store.
Leedmark officials have taken great pains to avoid being labeled a hypermarket, a European-born retail concept that combines food and general merchandise under one gigantic roof.
Given that hypermarkets have met with mixed success in the United States, it is little wonder.
N. Richard Nelson Jr., an analyst with Duff & Phelps in Chicago, says major retailers such as K mart and Wal-Mart have not made hypermarkets a major strategy because they have yet to prove profitable. K mart operates three hypermarkets and Wal-Mart operates four elsewhere in the United States.
"They've been good at generating sales, but poor at producing profits," says Nelson, attributing the problem to the high cost of operating large stores.
Also, hypermarkets in large urban areas are faced with enormous competition from strip shopping centers and regional malls, Nelson says. "It's just not necessary to travel a great distance to visit a hypermarket."
Leedmark officials are hoping such assessments don't apply to their store. Officials said yesterday they expect to draw customers from a 10 to 15 mile radius of the store.
Thomas Lenkevich, president of G.B. Glenmark Ltd. Co., the management firm for the Glen Burnie store, said that a major difference between European hypermarkets and Leedmark is the design, which divides areas of the store into specific departments.
Hypermarkets are designed as a series of long aisles with no obvious differentiation between types of goods, Lenkevich said.
"Americans are used to departments and layouts that are easy to understand and get to," Lenkevich said.
The store has several automated services that appear to be unique to many retailers in the area.
Three touch activated store directories spread through the store and can direct customers to the item they are looking for. The directories also dispense printouts of free recipes.
Leedmark's full service bakery includes a computerized cake decorating machine that within 15 minutes can duplicate on a cake surface the outline and color of any picture fed into its system.
Another computer electronically deciphers the combination of pigments in a piece of fabric or wall covering so that the proper mix can be made in a gallon of paint.
Like hypermarkets, the Leedmark in Glen Burnie is large.
Its overall square footage of 300,000, most of which is warehouse space, will give Leedmark the advantage of being able to buy large quantities of goods both from manufacturers and distributors, said Lenkevich.
That advantage will mean Leedmark can offer "everyday low prices," Lenkevich added. The store will not use the retail concept of having periodic sales.
The 130,000 square feet of floor space rivals most food warehouses, and is larger than most grocery and department stores in the area.
Trade journals have positioned Leedmark as a major competitor to the area's two major grocery chains, Giant Food Inc. and Safeway Inc., although it appears to be as much a competitor of K mart or various food warehouses. A Price Club currently operates less than a mile from Leedmark.
Trade journals have predicted a price war in the making, at least among Safeway and Giant supermarkets situated near Leedmark.
Peter Manos, Giant vice president of food operations, said yesterday that Giant expects to be competitive with Leedmark but is "always somewhat concerned" when a new grocery operation opens.
Says Safeway spokesman Jim Roberts, "A hypermarket is new to this area so we don't know what to expect. However, we will continue to provide competitive prices to our customers."
While Leedmark is essentially a mall with only one large store, there is a concession area at one end of the mall's large outer concourse. It has an assortment of fast food outlets. Other concessions include a check cashing operation, electronic repair service and picture framing.
There is also a children's playroom at another end of the concourse, where Leedmark promises supervised care for parents who want to shop without their children.
Each of the 48 checkout aisles has its own television monitor which will broadcast Cable News Network programming and Leedmark commercials for customer's entertainment.