When Rouse Co. planners built the first enclosed shopping mall on the East Coast, they plunked it down 10 miles south of Baltimore, in Glen Burnie.
Three decades after Harundale Mall put the North Countycommunity on shoppers' maps, the demographics seem to keep pointing back that way.
Lately, Glen Burnie's commercial hub has become a hot spot for retailers looking to expand, revamp and experiment. In a matter of months, a number of huge, new-style "megastores" touting "everyday low prices" have moved in, while other retailers have quickly switched gears to better compete.
"You can't say it's just a coincidence any time you see that kind of activity. The research has been done," said Jerry Shields, spokesman for Atlanta-based Home Depot, the highly successful chain of home-improvement warehouses. The fast-growing companylaunched a major expansion into the Northeast, opening its first Baltimore area store in June near Route 10 and Ordnance Road.
It's nomystery why Home Depot and a handful of others have all gravitated toward Glen Burnie, retailers say.
The location appealed to Leedmark -- the European-style hypermarket the size of three football fieldswith food, clothing and home and office goods under one roof -- because 1.5 million potential customers live within 15 miles of the store, also at Route 10 and Ordnance Road. Besides, Glen Burnie offers an "established, growing and prosperous" retail center, close to major roads and highways, spokesman Ed Segal said.
Home Depot moved in because of a high proportion of the single-family home owners the chaintargets.
Plus, says Arnold Sedel, a senior vice president for theFort Lauderdale-based Sports Authority: "You look at the growth and the way Washington and Baltimore are closing into each other. What wehave is almost an intersection of traffic from Washington to Baltimore."
The K mart subsidiary opened a 40,000-square-foot megastore last month next to the Price Club, off Ordnance Road, stressing its huge assortment of name-brand sporting goods and clothing at low prices.
Last week, Syms, a 31-year-old apparel chain that started on Wall Street, made its Baltimore-area debut in the 55,000-square-foot space near the Department of Motor Vehicles on Ritchie Highway formerly occupied by Ames.
The family-run business chose Glen Burnie partlybecause of easy access to the Baltimore Beltway. President Marcy Syms said she expects customers will drive at least 30 minutes for the "off price" men's, women's and children's designer apparel. The chain buys end-of-season, overproduced or discontinued clothing.
"We think it's a great market," said Syms, who watched throngs of shoppers line up outside to await last week's grand opening.
To hear retailers tell it, the Glen Burnie magnet works on customers as well as on retailers.
Shields said Home Depot has done well -- in spite of, ormaybe because of, the competition.
"A nucleus of businesses helpsget the customers into the area," he said. "To some extent it helps to have other businesses around."
"We're pleased with the response," said Leedmark spokesman Segal, noting the store has reached its goal of attracting between 140,000 and 150,000 customers a month.
Sedel described business at the Sports Authority as "sensational" -- 5 percent better than projected. The Glen Burnie store and one in WhiteMarsh are the first to break into the Baltimore market.
To Sedel,the chain's success means that founder Jack Smith was right four years ago in pegging the megastore concept as the wave of the future.
"That's what the customer wants, especially for large purchases" -- savings of 15 percent to 20 percent, Sedel said.
In some cases, the infusion of superstores -- which cut prices by stocking and sellinglarge volumes of goods and eliminating warehouses or distribution centers -- has prompted other retailers to rethink marketing strategy.
After Leedmark opened in May, Giant Food Inc. began cutting beautyand health product prices by 10 percent to 40 percent.
In March, shortly before Home Depot opened less than a mile away, hardware chain Hechinger remodeled its Ritchie Highway store into a Home Project Center -- dividing it into areas for the kitchen, bathroom, deck and garden and emphasizing lower prices.
By converting all its stores to Home Project Centers -- starting in Glen Burnie -- Hechinger is preparing to go head-to-head with Home Depot, industry analysts say. Hechinger officials, though, say they're just responding to customer demand, not to new competition.
While Home Depot attempts to gain a foothold in the area, the Boca Raton-based Office Depot, leader in theoffice superstore industry, has gone after the local office supply market. So have the Price Club and Leedmark, to a lesser extent.