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Wal-Mart means change

There are 24 towns in B.C. that have Wal-Mart stores. That number is expected to grow as the largest retailer in the world pushes to become even larger and strives to deliver better returns for shareholders.

There are 24 towns in B.C. that have Wal-Mart stores. That number is expected to grow as the largest retailer in the world pushes to become even larger and strives to deliver better returns for shareholders.

When Wal-Mart moves into a new location, there are impacts. Existing discount stores that can't offer Wal-Mart's everyday low prices quickly find that they can't compete and either pack it in, relocate or change their operation to better compete.

Courtenay became a Wal-Mart town less than three years ago and according to Susie Quinn, the assistant editor of the Comox Valley Record, the retailer launched the Vancouver Island community into a whole new retail reality.

"We had a full year of protests before it opened," Quinn said. "Our downtown core was quite worried about it but they seem to have changed the way they marketed themselves. They offer different things than Wal-Mart does. We now have a thriving downtown."

Before Wal-Mart, the shopping in Courtenay was found mainly in the downtown area and at a separate mall away from the downtown.

With Wal-Mart well established, Quinn said a new strip mall area is developing near the big retailer. Future Shop, Sportmart, Staples, Payless Shoes and Home Depot have all since descended on Courtenay and Winners and London Drugs are both soon going to open new stores to serve the 70,000 people living in the Comox Valley.

Quinn said along with that market, the big box retailers are drawing shoppers from northern Vancouver Island.

"It was just the start, really," Quinn said of how Wal-Mart got the big chain retailer ball rolling.The community of Nelson in the Kootenay region felt minor impacts when Wal-Mart came to town. Mayor Dave Elliott reports that a few businesses were affected but there was no major economic upheaval.

The Nelson experience differs from what Squamish potentially faces if Wal-Mart comes in that the Nelson store converted from a Woolco to a Wal-Mart when the retail giant made its initial entry into Canada. The Woolco store was small and the existing Wal-Mart in Nelson is one of the smallest in the Wal-Mart empire.

Salmon Arm, a community with much in common with Squamish, is also being courted by Wal-Mart. Even though there isn't a store yet, Salmon Arm is being carefully watched. Wal-Mart struck a deal with the local Indian Band to build a store on native land. The challenge for Wal-Mart now, according to the Salmon Arm Observer, is to negotiate access to the highway and a deal must be struck to connect the store to the District of Salmon Arm water and sewer system.

Roy Prevost, a business consultant who specializes in helping small business survive the arrival of big box retailers reports that Wal-Mart can bring a boon to communities if they approach the company's arrival the right way.

He uses the phrase "consciousness of retail" in describing the potential impact of companies like Wal-Mart.

"The arrival of new retail doesn't divide the pie more," Prevost argues. "New opportunity leads to more and new spending."

He uses a comparison to McDonald's setting up shop in a town, as was the case for Squamish in the late 1980s.

"When McDonald's comes to town they lead the way for Wendy's and Tim Hortons and the others and people in the town tend to eat more at fast food outlets," Prevost told The Chief.

Prevost works with retailers facing the arrival of big box stores. His consulting resume includes work in Trail, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Kitimat, Smithers, Prince George, Chilliwack, Vernon and Kamloops.

Each of those towns either has a Wal-Mart or is impacted by one in a neighbouring community.

The impacts from the stores is all about the same," Prevost said. "There is a honeymoon period where a lot of the small retailers see their consumers dry up and go elsewhere. If they are smart they offer a relationship with these customers and offer a special niche to them."

According to Prevost, really smart retailers do really well in any market.

"Marginal retailers will probably go by the wayside in that environment [with the arrival of a new big box retailer]," said Prevost. "The really good ones will prosper because they get new customers."

Prevost found that there were not massive economic upheavals following the arrival of Wal-Mart in the communities he worked with to prepare for the retail steamroller.

"Ultimately, in some cases it is a boon for the community and the smaller businesses," Prevost said. "If they are going head-to-head with Wal-Mart on their merchandise they are not going to win.

"You are not in competition with big box at all - never even think about it," said Prevost.

Some shoppers who enter Wal-Mart don't find the level of quality they want and when that happens, Prevost said they will go somewhere else to find the quality they want. He says that those shoppers will find the higher quality items in the smaller stores of a typical B.C. downtown shopping area.

The people most affected by Wal-Mart, said Prevost are those addicted to selling name brands at discounted prices. From his experience, he says national chains with small stores across the country have trouble competing.

"They are hard hit by the Wal-Marts of the world," said Prevost. "Anyone in that discount world, they are going to feel it big time. There's no reason for that because they can change the way they do business but it is entrenched in their culture."

Prevost said that 20 per cent of the customers that small business have amount to 80 per cent of the company's business. The towns that successfully weathered Wal-Mart's arrival have business owners that figured out who the 20 per cent were and then figured out how to best service them.

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