Superstores Invade New England

Article excerpt

CONCORD, N.H. _ Giant retail stores have made billions from small-town America on a simple premise: If you build it, they will come.

Consumers will travel considerable distances _ some up to 40 miles _ to shop at stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Circuit City. That has New England's small-business owners worried about competition and its residents worried about the disintegration of their towns.

News that Wal-Mart will be opening in Concord this year makes Catherine Pappas pause. "The whole world is changing," she said, gazing out of the card shop she has run near the statehouse for 26 years.

New England was one of the final frontiers for enormous discount chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., its Sam's Clubs chain, and specialized giants like Home Depot and OfficeMax. Wal-Mart opened its first New England store in Hooksett, N.H., just two years ago.

Since then, the pace at which superstores have branched out has been dizzying. There are 17 Wal-Mart stores in New England, with 10 more planned this year.

Circuit City, the nation's largest consumer electronics retailer, will open 14 stores in New England this year. OfficeMax, a subsidiary of Kmart that sells office supplies, plans to open 20 stores in the region.

And Home Depot, which opened its first New England store in New Haven, Conn., in 1989, now has 16 stores in the region. Company officials expect nine more by the end of 1994.

Meanwhile, the traditional department stores of Main Street have fared miserably. In March, citing competition from Wal-Mart, Miller's department store in downtown Nashua, N.H., closed. It had been in business since 1928.

The story is the same in other cities and towns around New England.

Mike St. Germain, owner of Concord Camera for 23 years, gave his store managers some money recently and sent them to Wal-Mart to shop _ and learn some of its secrets.

"You're not going to beat them," he said. "There's no way. But find out what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and build on that."

Pappas believes one competitive advantage she offers is a small writing desk in the back of her store for people to sign their cards.

"I come by here sometimes and they're crying. They're writing sympathy cards," she said. Pappas listens, because so many people don't have anyone else to talk to. …

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