Small-town businesses bridle enthusiasm for Wal-Mart debut
KILMARNOCK, Va. — WalMart Stores Inc. threw open its doors in the tiny Northern Neck town of Kilmarnock on Oct. 24 to fanfare by local residents touting the retailer’s low prices and the convenience of having a one-stop shopping destination in town.
The world’s largest retailer was greeted by the Lancaster County High School marching band and color guard and an early-morning crowd that Wal-Mart estimated at about 600, which is a lot considering the population of the town is 1,244.
“What’s not to be excited about?” said Ellen Hollows, a resident of nearby Reedville who attended the grand opening. “It’s a central location where we can come to get a lot of things instead of going to [other Wal-Mart stores in] Gloucester, Tappahannock or Richmond.”
Wal-Mart was the buzz of Kilmarnock. For many local residents, the opening was a long time coming. They are tired of making the 30-mile trek to other Wal-Mart stores for products they can’t find in town, such as small appliances, towels and inexpensive clothing.
For business owners, Wal-Mart signals stiff competition that is tough to beat on price. They’re concerned that Wal-Mart could seriously cut their margins or even drive them out of business.
Some people worry Wal-Mart and the other big-box chain stores that typically follow Wal-Mart will change the character of their town.
Wal-Mart is moving into a quiet coastal town of mostly mom-andpop shops where people know their neighbors. The community is largely composed of retirees — many from Northern Virginia — but the population swells with tourists in the summer. Shops close at 5 p.m. and restaurants close by 11 p.m., even on weekends.
The Wal-Mart Supercenter features a few firsts for Kilmarnock, including a sushi bar with food made daily and a kiosk to download 88cent songs and burn a CD.
Marian S. Ransome, 79, made the trip from nearby Lively to attend Wal-Mart’s grand opening. She said she “couldn’t wait” for the store’s arrival because of its low prices.
“A head of lettuce in town is [$3 for two]. It’s 99 cents here,” she said. “Why in the hickens wouldn’t I buy it here?”
“I think it’s great, but I feel for the small businesses,” said Kilmarnock resident Kathy Sanders, who bought a watch shortly after Wal-Mart opened.
Small businesses, fearing WalMart will take away some of their customers, have responded by cutting back in categories where WalMart competes. The Doll House stopped orders of dolls that WalMart carries; Sports Centre changed its focus from sports gear and accessories to team clothing and trophies; Noah’s Ark bicycle and vacuum shop reduced retail and pumped up its repair business.
Some shoppers say they’ll still support locally owned stores.
Ms. Sanders said when she was struggling financially about 15 years ago, the owner of the Tri-Star gro- cery store helped her out.
“He took $20 from his own pocket and gave it to me to go grocery shopping,” she said, adding that she repaid the owners as soon as she could. “They’re always going to have my business.”
Wal-Mart repeatedly promised that it will be a good corporate neighbor.
At its grand opening, Wal-Mart presented the Northern Neck Free Clinic with a $10,000 grant. Eighteen other community groups received a combined $24,000 in grants.
Kilmarnock business owners say local sports teams and church groups often rely on local businesses for their fundraising efforts. Smallbusiness owners expressed concern that Wal-Mart might only cut large checks to a few organizations.
Store manager Jim Fryear said he plans to have his store donate to small causes in addition to making the larger quarterly community grants. His store has already raised $1,000 from employee donations for a local police officer whose house caught on fire.
“We’ll continue to do that in the future,” he said. “We’re going to be part of the community. All they have to do is ask.”
Mr. Fryear made a personal pledge to become a part of the community. He lives in West Point, which is about 30 miles away, but has become a member of four local business and community organizations, he said.
Kilmarnock has already felt WalMart’s impact in other ways, as well.
The store has hired about 250 employees and Mr. Fryear plans to add about 50 more. He said 95 percent of his employees are from the Northern Neck area and 5 percent were transferred from other WalMart stores. All full- and part-time employees receive benefits, he said.
The town police department recently added two full-time officers, boosting it to six full-time officers, in part because of the Wal-Mart and the additional people it is expected to bring to Kilmarnock from nearby towns.
Police Chief Mike Bedell said he expects petty crimes could increase but doubts there will be serious crime associated with the store.
The town of Kilmarnock and the Virginia Department of Transportation installed a stoplight — the fifth on Main Street — in front of the Wal-Mart to control traffic in the area.
The light has drawn the ire of some residents on nearby Hawthorne Street. They are going to have to fight incoming Wal-Mart traffic to make a left turn into their neighborhood.
“Everybody is upset about [the stoplight],” said resident William C. Robins. “But you can’t stop progress.”
Blends right in with the neighborhood? The marching band of Lancaster County High School trumpeted the grand opening of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Kilmarnock, Va.