Superstores taking toll on smaller retailers Customers sold on concept of low prices, huge stock

October 20, 1991|By David Conn

The first thing to hit you when you walk into the Sports Authority, an airplane-hangar-size retail outlet in Glen Burnie, is the shoes: thousands of shoes stacked 30 feet high in skyscraper aisles. The new-shoe smell is thick, like the first ride in a new car.

Angela Rowland of Arbutus, doing some early Christmas shopping, is wheeling a cart through the 40,000 square feet of merchandise, past the aisles of shoes, past the bicycles, sweat suits and rowing machines, the shotguns, bowling balls and kayaks -- 35,000 items in all.

She used to shop at Herman's World of Sporting Goods, "but the selection wasn't as good." Herman's might have two or three models of each type of shoe, but Sports Authority "has 10 types of aerobic shoes," Ms. Rowland marvels.

The Sports Authority is among the latest arrivals of what retailers and analysts are calling "category killers." These no-frills warehouse stores offer everything in one product line at a discount price, and in the last five years, they have sprouted like mushrooms.

In Baltimore alone there are category killers selling sporting goods, hardware, office supplies, drugs, toys, stereos and video rentals.

These stores have dramatically reordered the retailing world -- and are changing the Americans shop. Category killers have been fueled by space-age inventory controls, the slow erosion of the middle class, and shoppers who demand a wide selection and everyday bargains. And their intended victims are department stores and the midsize specialty chains that used to be the biggest kids on the block.

Unless these midsize retailers can differentiate themselves, either by finding a product niche, clinging to a successful mall or personally serving their customers like the small mom-and-pop stores do, many analysts predict they will go the way of the drive-in theater.

In the Baltimore area, Hechinger is confronting the challenge of Home Depot head-on. The Channel hardware chain has filed for bankruptcy protection.

Among midlevel stereo chains, Stereo Discounters is gone and Stansbury Stereo and Video went bankrupt before it was sold to a Pennsylvania chain, although neither chain's troubles can be blamed solely on category killer Circuit City.

Even the smaller category killers in some areas, such as Lionel Kiddie City and Child World, are bowing to pressure from the top competitor, Toys "R" Us.

The supermarket style

At the West Coast Videos store in the Mount Vernon Market Center on Guilford Avenue, a customer, who says he shops there because it's convenient, returns a copy of "Postcards From the Edge" to owner Wilhelmina Hargrave.

Her 3,000-square-foot store, part of a large chain, is in a downtown neighborhood, which provides a buffer from the aptly named Blockbuster chain. That category killer carries an average of 10,000 movie titles in 15,000-square-foot stores that typically are too big to locate in city neighborhoods where rents are high.

Sales have been flat at this West Coast Videos, partly because of the recession, Ms. Hargrave believes. Although she's concerned, she says, "You can't spend the bulk of your time worrying."

Blockbuster "has to have had an effect," she admits. "You've got a whole generation of people who are used to supermarkets, who would probably feel uncomfortable going to an old-fashioned butcher shop. Even though, in my opinion, the service is more personal and better at the butcher shop."

It was the supermarket, not the butcher shop, that inspired the first category killers. "Fascinated by the success of the self-service supermarkets," a Toys "R" Us corporate history states, founder Charles Lazarus' "first Toys 'R' Us store, which opened in 1957, had shopping carts, self-service, discount prices and a broad selection of toys."

As of last year, the company, which is based in Rochelle Park, N.J., had 615 stores and $5.5 billion in revenue -- more than Giant Food Inc., Hechinger Co. and Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc. combined.

Toys "R" Us has been a prototype for many of today's successful superstores, according to William Lehrberger, director of marketing for the Fort Lauderdale-based Sports Authority, now a division of K mart Corp. "We, in fact, modeled ourselves after Toys "R" Us," because they were the first category killer," he says.

Department stores suffer

The first companies to suffer from the efficiencies and economies of the superstores were the mid-to-upscale department stores, everyone from Sears to Bloomingdale's, according to Marvin A. Jolson, a business professor now on leave from the University of Maryland at College Park. Department stores used to be the one-stop shop that the middle class relied on for all manner of "hard goods," such as toys, appliances, home electronics and sporting goods, he says.

But a few major changes gave rise to specialty stores and their evolutionary descendants, the category killers.

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