Sandpoint Braces For Wal-Mart Downtown Stores Must Change To Survive, Consultant Says
When mega-retailer Wal-Mart opens a store in nearby Ponderay this summer, it will be a shoppers’ promised land - one that could siphon the economic life from downtown Sandpoint.
“Wal-Mart will be a consumer paradise with prices you can’t believe and plenty of parking,” business consultant Steve Torak told about 45 local business owners Tuesday.
“They are going to have a person with a wonderful face greet you at the door, maybe even give you a candy bar. They hire people who look like they are having a religious experience,” Torak said.
“Everything is going against you in downtown. You are going to have to change the way you do business. Those who don’t won’t survive.”
The Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce hired Torak to teach business owners how to adapt once the super-discounter opens here. Torak is a University of Wyoming professor who has studied towns where Wal-Mart has moved in.
Torak is not a Wal-Mart basher. In fact, he said the new 100,000-squarefoot store is a good thing for businesses in Bonner County. It will attract more people and keep some shoppers from leaving town in search of products and lower prices.
Other businesses can capitalize on that by finding a niche - not to compete with Wal-Mart but to coexist.
Sporting goods stores won’t be able to sell fishing rods for $12 and camera stores can’t process film for $3.77 like Wal-Mart, he said. Instead, business owners must become experts on products, offer technical advice, repairs and service and carry gadgets Wal-Mart won’t stock.
“Wal-Mart creates hobbyists, but if you can become the camera expert, people are going to buy from you. It will be tough, but it can work,” he said.
Don Banning, who owns the Pastime Sports Center, said Torak’s ideas sound good but finding a niche isn’t that easy in a town of Sandpoint’s size.
“We have seen Wal-Mart kill other downtowns around the country. We don’t want that to happen here,” Banning said. “I’m sure the first year they are open, everyone will flock out there. It’s going to be tough.”
Some of the business owners at the meeting recalled sitting through a similar seminar five years ago when Kmart opened in Ponderay. But Wal-Mart’s arrival seems to evoke more concern.
“Things didn’t change much when Kmart moved in, but I think Sandpoint is over-retailed now,” said Clarence Van Dellen, owner of the Image Maker camera store. “What I hope this does is galvanize the downtown. That hasn’t happened yet - you can tell by looking at who isn’t here today.”
Torak said the key to survival is cooperation among downtown businesses. “It’s the only way you are going to be successful. If you are not friends, you will die.”
Business owners need to agree on simple, common-sense things such as consistent hours for all downtown shops to stay open. Torak noted most people work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sandpoint’s downtown stores typically are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“What does that make your target market? The unemployed,” Torak said.
Kmart already has adjusted its hours - from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. - to prepare for Wal-Mart’s onslaught.
Torak suggested businesses install a sign to point people leaving Wal-Mart back to Sandpoint’s downtown. Shoppers are like sharks, he said; they get into a buying frenzy. But they can’t spend more money if they can’t find the stores among the myriad of one-way streets downtown.
In addition, Torak said, “merchants should be parking so far away from downtown that they get nosebleeds.
“And listen, folks, we need a bathroom. It’s the No. 1 thing tourists look for when they come to town.”
Sandpoint’s downtown business association disbanded about a year ago, but chamber of commerce Director Jonathan Coe said it’s time to reorganize and address some of Torak’s suggestions.
“I think his points are well-taken,” Coe said. “We can attract more shoppers with a Wal-Mart here. We don’t have to lose them.”
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