Shrouded in enough mystery to rival a Defense Department weapons program, Leedmark -- the area's newest retailer -- is opening quietly tomorrow in Glen Burnie.
And after nearly a year of planning and construction, the mammoth store on Chesapeake Center Drive near the Beltway still defies description, even on the eve of its debut.
Part of it has been the secrecy, and another part has been the company's denial that Leedmark is a hypermarket, a European-born retail concept that combines food and general merchandise under one gigantic roof.
A reporter given a sneak preview of the store this week was told to look but keep questions to a minimum. The store, which cost $10 million to construct, sits in an area of Glen Burnie at Ordnance Road and Md. 10.
At first glance, Leedmark appears to be nothing less than a mammoth warehouse store, only brighter and with snazzier displays. Closer inspection reveals more than a warehouse. Leedmark is a grocery store, clothing store, household furnishings store, record store and book store in one.
Some categories of goods 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.
Given that hypermarkets have met with mixed success in the United States, it is little wonder that Leedmark officials have shied away from the definition.
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.
"It's different and better," says company spokesman Edward Segal. "It's a one-stop market, a hybrid market. It's the best of a lot of things."
The company certainly has hypermarket roots. Leedmark is the offspring of the New Eldis Corp. of Glen Burnie, headed by President Thomas Lenkevich. But the source of its revenues, according to trade journals, comes from backers within the Association des Centres Distributors Leclerc, a Paris co-op that operates hypermarkets in France.
Segal denies Leclerc is backing Leedmark, but he refuses to elaborate.
He offers only one explanation for the secrecy surrounding Leedmark: Control.
"As with most large projects, whether it be an opening of a store or the Persian Gulf war, we like to release information on a controlled basis," he says.
Whatever Leedmark is, it is not small.
Earlier reports placed the building's square footage at 300,000, most of which is warehouse space. The sales floor takes up approximately 130,000 square feet, an amount that rivals most food warehouses, and is larger than most grocery and department store chains in the area.
Trade journals have positioned Leedmark as a major competitor to the area's two major grocery store 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.
Most of the 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 moves into the area.
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."
It is difficult to tell how competitive Leedmark intends to be with its grocery prices. Many food items and sundries were either not on the shelf earlier this week or not yet priced. Segal refuses to discuss the company's pricing strategy.
On the general merchandise side, Leedmark appears to be offering some discount prices on name brand items, some of which are not normally seen in competitors' operations. They include Florsheim and French Shriner shoes, as well as Botany 500 outerwear and Farah suits.
Botany 500 trench coats sell for approximately $90, Farah sport coats for $80 and Hathaway ties for $7.
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.
Segal would not discuss the purpose of the monitors, but they appear there entertain customers.