Hypermart or Hyperventilated?

November 03, 1993

The hypermart is a retailing concept that thrives in countries from France to South Africa. But Americans, including those in the Baltimore area, seem distinctly cold to the idea of doing all their shopping -- from meats and groceries to appliances and clothes -- in one huge store.

Earlier this fall, a big French hypermarket chain, Carrefour, pulled the plug on two of its warehouse-type stores in Philadelphia. Now the guillotine has fallen on Leedmark, a Glen Burnie emporium that was supposed to be the French Leclerc Group's prototype for a 20-store chain on the East Coast after it opened in May 1991.

With Leedmark's cavernous quarters, was the store too immense for shoppers to feel comfortable?

Was something wrong with its Glen Burnie location -- even though such nearby competitors as the Price Club, Home Depot and the Sports Authority seem to be doing nicely in the superstore complex that has mushroomed behind the state Motor Vehicle Administration headquarters?

Was Leedmark wrong in not advertising more aggressively throughout the metropolitan region to attract a wider audience?

Was the company's retailing concept right for the free-spending 1980s but outdated by the time the Glen Burnie store opened in the thrifty '90s?

Or was its failure triggered by some little thing -- like having to plunk down a returnable 25 cents to "rent" a shopping cart?

Leedmark got off to a rocky start. So many curious shoppers and browsers trooped to see it during the store's opening week that huge traffic jams developed at Leedmark's service road intersection with Ordnance Road. Even though those problems were eventually rectified, the initial difficulties may well have stamped the store with a reputation for inconvenience among many shoppers.

The first warning signs came months later, when some of the independent specialty shops in the Leedmark complex began failing. By February of this year, things had gotten so tough for the hypermart that its parent company's chairman was ousted in an internal power struggle. Soon afterward, the Glen Burnie store slashed its payroll and the company announced it had abandoned its plan to open a second shop.

Leedmark's failure underscores the unpredictability of retailing in today's economic climate. But its demise also means that some other retailer will now have a superb location at its disposal: One's misfortune is another's gain.

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