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Yelm businesses cast a wary eye at Wal-Mart

YELM - Whether it's a change in inventory or greater dedication to customer service, small businesses here are preparing for more competition as the Wal-Mart Supercenter begins to take shape.

Some businesses are prepared, while some aren't concerned at all.

The majority of the 300 to 400 members of the Yelm Area Chamber of Commerce look forward to the services offered by the Supercenter, according to chamber Executive Director Cecelia Jenkins.

After months of opposition to the new store, Jenkins said, people in the community are asking: When is it coming? When will it be finished? And will it open by Christmas?

"They don't even talk about it," Jenkins said about Yelm residents and their current feelings toward Wal-Mart. "Now, they're just waiting."

The 184,000-square-foot store is expected to open in the second quarter of next year, according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jennifer Holder.

Sharing a market

However, not every Yelm business is considered to be immune from Wal-Mart's competitive challenge, Jenkins added.

She identified Sunbirds Shopping Center Inc. and Tim's Pharmacy & Gifts as businesses that might be affected by Wal-Mart.

For Sunbirds, it's the second time the independent sporting goods, clothing and hardware store has shared a market with Wal-Mart.

Since 1976, it has had a store in Chehalis, which also is home to a Wal-Mart, and it has had a store in Yelm since 2000. The two stores employ 75 people, co-owner Gus Salloum said.

Competing with Wal-Mart simply means working harder, he said.

"You work around what they do and try and exist," he said. "You either give up or work harder and exist."

Specific details of how his business plans to compete with Wal-Mart in Yelm were not disclosed.

"It's a sore subject, and I don't like to talk about it," Salloum said.

Making sure a small business differentiates itself from Wal-Mart is critical, according to Celia Nightingale, director of the Small Business Development Center at South Puget Sound Community College.

That difference could be in offering delivery services or one-on-one attention to customers, or by offering different products, she said.

"The bottom line is that you figure out strategies that make yourself different and do what is necessary so that the market recognizes that the difference is worthwhile," Nightingale said.

Focus on service

Tim Larsen, longtime owner of Tim's Pharmacy, plans to emphasize customer service.

That could include sitting down with patients to go over their medication or continuing to offer respiratory therapy for asthma patients and smoking cessation programs, he said.

"Anything they (Wal-Mart) don't do that we can do will help us survive," Larsen said.

In some ways, Larsen has fought this battle before.

Tim and Nancy Larsen have run the business for 27 years, one of three sets of owners since the Yelm corner pharmacy first opened in 1919.

Before Wal-Mart, Tim's had to compete with the arrival of Rite Aid and a pharmacy at Safeway. Still, Larsen is well aware of Wal-Mart's presence in the market.

"Are we worried about it? No. Are we concerned about it? Yes," he said. "I can't prevent Wal-Mart, but we can certainly do our best to keep our patients here by giving them the best possible service."

The Larsens also have read books on Wal-Mart, and though Tim Larsen doesn't shop there, wife Nancy has shopped at Wal-Mart to learn from the company.

Spending time at a Wal-Mart can be a key part of research in understanding how to compete with the retailer, Nightingale said.

"Capitalize on areas of weakness," she said.

Feeling less angst

Some Yelm businesses aren't as concerned about Wal-Mart:

- Elie Jewelry owner Margarette Elie: "I can't tell you if it's going to be great or bad for the town. When they first announced they were coming, I didn't give it a thought."

- Kristin Maas, spokesperson for Quality Food Centers of Bellevue, which operates a 49,000-square-foot store in Yelm: "If we focus on what we do and continue to do it right, we're fine. Always be aware of what they're doing, but take care of your own house."

- Scott Demich, co-owner of Yelm True Value Hardware, a store started by his grandfather in 1941: "The best place to be is within five miles of Wal-Mart. People get ideas at Wal-Mart, and then they go elsewhere."

What small businesses shouldn't do is try to compete on price with Wal-Mart and to make business adjustments when the store opens, rather than now, Nightingale said.

Small businesses also might consider changing vendors, trimming back on nonessential business items and setting up financial reserves, she said.

Even Wal-Mart is not against offering advice to small business owners, according to Holder.

"Actually we do," Holder wrote in an e-mail about providing advice. "We have gone into communities and offered speakers on how to compete against us and how to thrive in our shadow."

Rolf Boone covers business for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5403 or rboone@theolympian.com.

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