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Big box stores encounter hate...and love

Service key for businesses dueling world’s largest retailer

What happens to small businesses when the world’s largest retailer comes to town? Wal-Mart is hated and loved in communities where it sometimes brings an increased tax base and more jobs along with diminished choices and the closing of locally-owned businesses.

When a super-sized Wal-Mart opened on U.S. 90 just inside the city limits of Pass Christian, one of the state’s most scenic and charming towns, there was opposition and dread from that town and nearby Long Beach.

Wilma Rizzardi, executive director of the Pass Christian Chamber of Commerce, said. “Many people feared it would knock out small businesses here but service is the reason our local businesses are surviving, and our residents want to support locally-owned businesses. They appreciate the service they receive.”

The Wal-Mart has been there almost two years and she says so far they’ve been good corporate citizens and helped the financial base of the 6,500-population Harrison County town. One long-established business, Martin Hardware, changed hands during that time and is doing well under new owner Jim Growkowski.

‘Still here’

On Scenic Drive, Russell’s Service Center is one of a dying breed, a gas station that offers full service. Owners Tom and Alice Russell have been in business since 1978 and became independent station owners in January of 1989.

“Like most small businesses, we’re struggling but still here,” Alice Russell said. “We have to do what we did before Wal-Mart came, and that’s provide service. We’re still doing that, and we stay active in the community. We stay in front of the public.”

She adds that Wal-Mart is tough competition with resources her business doesn’t have, but her station is offering something the big retailer and convenience stores don’t offer — full service. “I’m a native here and have a stake in the community,” she said. “People need a place to have tires fixed and other things that cars need.”

Pulling together

In Long Beach, merchants on Jeff Davis Avenue have banded together to fight back with special promotions that have been successful and will continue. “The businesses here are so supportive, and it’s most beneficial when we all pull together,” said Andrea Yeager, owner of Andrea’s Annex. “It’s important to work together. We budget advertising together and plan promotions such as Shop Long Beach and Christmas on the Avenue. It’s like a big street party.”

Pattie Ryan of Dynamic Arts in Long Beach said, “We will continue this type weekend promotion as long as we feel it is contributing to the popularity and preservation of our shops. If you don’t promote your own business, then who’s going to do it for you?”

Wiggins Chamber of Commerce executive director Russell Hatten says the Wal-Mart on U.S. 49 has brought increased traffic to his Stone County town and kept some local residents from driving to surrounding counties to shop. The former Wiggins mayor has also seen new jobs and an increased tax base but enthusiastically supports the survival of small businesses, believing there is a place for both.

He points out that Jack’s Home Improvement is a new business that opened after Wal-Mart came to town. He says they’re doing well, along with Alexander Building Supply, County Discount Drugs, Wilson Drugs and Balman’s Auto Supply. A grocery store, Greer’s Grocery, went out of business, but Hatten isn’t sure why.

Daniel Balman opened Balman’s Auto Supply on U.S. 49 eight years ago. He sells automotive and tractor parts and equipment. He says there isn’t as much competition in the area for the tractor parts but automotive parts is his main business and there are several national auto parts competitors. He worked for another auto parts company for 16 years before opening his own business in a 2,400-square-foot building.

“When people come in with questions, I have answers,” he said. “I have knowledge other stores don’t have, based on experience. I had 18 years of business in this town before Wal-Mart came here.”

He thinks that a shopper just wanting to pick up an item might go to Wal-Mart, but when they need something specific will go where they can get service, information and understanding.

“If I was going to open another small business, I would definitely make sure it’s something I understand,” Balman said. “Make sure you know what you’re doing. I think that’s why a lot of small businesses fail.”

In Southwest Mississippi, the town of Monticello doesn’t have a Wal-Mart, but the Lawrence County town has felt negative effects from the super store in Brookhaven, 20 miles to the west.

“Wal-Mart definitely has impacted our town,” said Bob Smira, president of the Lawrence County Economic Development Association. “We now have only one grocery store and have lost all our clothing stores.”

He even challenged the economics of grocery shopping at Wal-Mart by having a high school class purchase 90 items there and at the local supermarket. He says there wasn’t much difference in price, and he felt the drive and high cost of gasoline negated any savings of shopping out of town.

One problem, Smira says, is that many residents now work outside Lawrence County and shop on lunch breaks and after work because small- town businesses don’t keep extended hours. “Convenience is definitely the thing,” he said. “It takes a lot of advertising and offering low prices, but you must let people know what you have and where you are.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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