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THE MORNING BUZZ: Where's the Love for Kmart?

26 Feb, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

Over the last few weeks I've been reading along as my colleague, Thomas K. Arnold, sings the praises of his bright, clean Wal-Mart and cries crocodile tears about Kmart's misfortune.

For a long time I wasn't really qualified to compare Kmart to Wal-Mart. Until a month ago, there wasn't a Wal-Mart within three Kmarts of my house, so I never went.

Then our brand spanking new, hotly contested Wal-Mart finally opened. The chain fought for years to get a foothold in my community, where hundreds of protesters fought the land lease that let the chain build on a former elementary school site (the store opening was even delayed over a weekend until the chain made some improvements to a nearby city park that were a condition of opening a store in our town). At last, the store opened.

What an anticlimax. So okay, Thomas, I will grant you the store is clean (though I did not visit the bathrooms) -- but you expect that with a store less than a month old. And clean is supposed to mean free of debris, not free of sales associates on the floor. You could walk around that cavern for hours without ever seeing a salesperson except at a cash register.

I've been to that Wal-Mart three times now and have yet to find the items I went in for. Typically I am looking for items I used to get at Kmart, before its cupboard was bare, before the bankruptcy filing. I can easily see Wal-Mart fielding an ad campaign around having the best prices on national brands, but what if you don't want a national brand?

On my last visit I might have impulse purchased a bag of chips, but they didn't have the kind I like. They had 48 flavors and sizes of Doritos and other Frito-Lay products, but not a Wahoo in sight., which illustrates the chain's merchandising strategy.

Wal-Mart is the revenge of the rack jobbers.

Along with becoming the nation's leading discounter, Wal-Mart has made strides in efficiency and reduced its on-the-job injury rate phenomenally using that strategy.

Wal-Mart contracts as much as possible with companies that will deliver goods and stock the shelves themselves, which works for the chain in at least three ways. Most of its suppliers are national brands with the capacity to monitor stock through Wal-Mart's point-of-sale system, which saves Wal-Mart a lot of inventory tracking; that lets the chain run a leaner operation with little need for its own warehouses; and Wal-Mart employees do a very small percentage of stocking, so the chain has very few lifting and back injury claims for a large retailer.

That's great for the chain, but not always so hot for consumers.

After three disappointing visits to our much-heralded Wal-Mart, I can honestly say I'll only go back as a last resort. Even their garden center doesn't hold a candle to the local Target's.

So as much as supplies allow, I am loyal to my little Kmart, where the aisles are getting roomier and the supplies are dwindling. I want Kmart to pull through.

If Kmart goes under it will not only disappoint me, but an entire city's worth of protesters will be hopping mad that our local officials let Wal-Mart plow down a vacant school to build a superstore when the Kmart property less than two miles away opens up.



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