Life after Wal-Mart Retail trends: David and Goliath tale in Eldersburg seems a throwback in 'big box' land.

July 09, 1996

THE STORY conjured up images of David and Goliath, only the slingshot was a bit frayed: A mom-and-pop pet store in Carroll County was locked in a price war over cat food with a Wal-Mart down the road.

Personal Pets had priced the tabby treats at 69 cents a can. The shopkeeper was alarmed when he noticed that Wal-Mart was selling the stuff for just 53 cents, after a customer he recognized as a Wal-Mart employee was spotted browsing in his store. He countered, marking down the cat food to 49 cents, but lamented to a reporter that he couldn't withstand such crossfire for long.

The "little guy fights a giant" story wasn't the only reason this confrontation sounded like ancient history. Since entering this market four years ago as a strange visitor from the South and Midwest, Wal-Mart has become as ubiquitous as McDonald's. When its no-frills, red, white and blue stores arrived, with Sam Walton's unusual blend of aw-shucks style and cutthroat pricing, residents ventured out to see what the fuss was about. But because it built stores so rapidly and in close proximity, Wal-Mart became a fixture in short order. The occasional community still bucks a proposed store over zoning or sprawl concerns. But price wars with mom-and-pops don't arise much.

One reason, we suspect, is that smaller operators took the advice of consultants flown in by various chambers of commerce to help them compete in a Wal-Mart world; that is, emphasize service and selection, not price.

Another probable reason stories like the one in Eldersburg are rare: Small businesses have more than one big competitor to worry about. Another national chain, Target, hopes to give local department stores and shops a run for their money when it unveils a half-dozen stores in the Baltimore area later this month. From the "power centers" abuilding in White Marsh and Columbia to once-vacant strip malls being redone in Bel Air and Pasadena, "big box" retailing is everywhere.

At some point, these behemoths may cannibalize one another: Witness the mammoth Incredible Universe electronics store that closed near Woodbridge, Va., after only eight months. But pet-food price skirmishes aside, if Maryland retailing has been diminished by this trend, it is difficult to find solid evidence of it.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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