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'Big box store' isn't so big, but its impact could be

Staff writer

Goliath is here, and he’s not so big after all.

Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market store in Hillsboro opened for business Wednesday, met with large crowds — some happy to avoid a trip to a McPherson or Newton location, others going, they swear, out of mere curiosity.

Store manager Brian Miller, of McPherson, said while the customer reaction he’s gotten has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he knows not all residents are fond of the Wal-Mart brand.

“Part of being the largest retailer in the world,” he said, “there are people who don’t care for us, people that have misconceptions. We have an obligation to go to the other side. We can’t just ignore them, we have to prove the opposite.”

Hillsboro’s rival business owners would love Miller’s store to prove the opposite of a common fear, that Wal-Mart’s presence in Hillsboro will put other retailers out of business.

Miller said he believes there’s enough business to go around. His claim is aided by recent closures of Heartland Foods and Alco in Hillsboro, which have created a need in the Hillsboro economy for a grocer.

Operationally, the Neighborhood Market is nothing more than it was advertised to be: 12,000 square feet, the majority of which is devoted to groceries. Very few of the store’s aisles are devoted to nonfood items. It is no Supercenter. It has a pharmacy, adjacent fueling stations, and a site-to-store operation that allows consumers to order items online found at a Supercenter and pick them up in-store.

Miller finds himself in the awkward position of being a business manager whose popularity with the public is contingent on how much his store allows other businesses to succeed.

He said he doesn’t take that into consideration when running his store.

“We set standards that we operate under,” he said. “We appreciate our customers, but we would never maliciously go after other businesses.”

He said for other businesses to adapt to a Wal-Mart, he recommended specialization and service.

“At any Wal-Mart Supercenter, you’ll usually see a number of businesses around it, places that specialize, that really feed off the traffic that Wal-Mart drives,” he said. “I worked at a Supercenter for 11 years, and I always said, ‘We have a little bit of everything, but we don’t have everything of anything.’”

When interviewed Friday, Miller said unprompted that he had directed three customers to other local businesses already that day. Two were looking for hunting and fishing licenses, so he sent them to The Lumberyard, and a third was looking for a cut of steak he said the store didn’t have, and he redirected them to Dale’s Supermarket.

Of around 30 employees, all but two are from Hillsboro or the surrounding area, he said. The store is looking to hire between five and 10 additional employees.

The Supercenter that Miller worked at in McPherson was 191,000 square feet, compared to the 12,000 square foot model in Hillsboro. He said he likes working at the smaller store because he interacts more with customers, and not, he said, “with the exceptions.”

“Managing a Supercenter, you spend most of your day putting out fires,” he said.

Miller said he knows many people who don’t plan on visiting Wal-Mart regularly will go once within the first week out of curiosity.

“We have one chance to show them what we’ve got,” he said.

The comment he’s heard most often was surprise at how much variety is in the store. He said this variety is because with fewer customers they can carry fewer of each item and keep a similar variety of items in stock.

Miller believes competition is good for consumers.

He pointed to remodeling at Dollar General, and a relocation for Greenhaw Pharmacy as prime examples of the benefits of competition.

He said Wal-Mart looks to national retailers as a source of competition, not local businesses. His store has joined the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce.

“We want to be as much a part of the community as we can be,” he said.

Last modified April 16, 2015

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