Ever since the Daily News published a series of stories last year based on the news that Wal-Mart was considering building a Supercenter in Robinson, I've hesitated to say anything about it on this page.
One reason was that I was so stunned by the response to our online survey. Not only were those who responded overwhelmingly in favor of a Supercenter, but many of the responses showed remarkable hostility and cynicism toward existing local businesses - essentially saying it "serves them right" if Wal-Mart expands and takes away their customers, or even runs them out of business.
While, over the quarter-century I've been in this craft, I've seen many people bitterly and almost violently opposed to one thing or another - school consolidation, taxes, a nuclear-waste dump - I've never seen people bitterly and almost violently in favor of something. But that seemed to be the case with the Supercenter.
Besides the shock, another reason I hesitated was that I didn't want to recycle the same old arguments. There are many good reasons to oppose not only Wal-Mart but "big box" stores and commercial sprawl in general, and they've all been advanced by people much more qualified than I am.
But after rushing into the Terre Haute Supercenter the other night, on the way back from visiting my father-in-law in the hospital. I paused after going through the checkout, listening to the incessant beeping of price scanners, looking out over the endless landscape of stuff, with the harsh banks of 24-hour fluorescence overhead. And I thought:
This is really going to change Robinson.
Maybe others have come to this rather simple-minded conclusion on their own, long before now, but it just hit me right there, standing on one of the Waltons' 150,000 square feet of gleaming linoleum tile. Even those of us who have done a lot of thinking about this issue, however we feel about it, probably don't realize just how great the impact will be. History shows that changing the way we consume changes the way we think, feel and behave.
Though it still has its consequences, a Wal-Mart Supercenter (or a Lowe's or a Staples or a Best Buy or a Meijer or a Target) is not such a big deal in a larger city - a Terre Haute or a Champaign. But a Supercenter in a community the size of Robinson - 22.5 square feet of store for every man, woman and child in town - will be something no one can ignore. It doesn't belong; it doesn't fit. In lots of ways. But it's coming.
Welcome to the store where you spend half an hour wandering the aisles to find one item. Welcome to the store where you enjoy a maddening array of choices - but in the end, only the choices that Bentonville deems appropriate to your demographic. Welcome to the store where what you find on the shelf and how much it costs depends not on its utility and value, but on how severely the corporation puts the screws to its suppliers and how heartlessly it treats its employees.
But those are the arguments you've heard before, and I said I wasn't going there.
Let's instead focus on the key question, which was posed by one of our online respondents: "It's not 'Can Wal-Mart be ready for Robinson,' but 'Can Robinson be ready for Wal-Mart?'" Some of us don't like it, many of us do, but the fact remains that the Supercenter is happening, and the question is what are we doing to prepare.
One thing we can do is to try to get as much out of the corporation as we can. Though Wal-Mart can essentially do whatever it wants within the zoning requirements, city officials seem to have taken an encouraging step by saying they don't want the store to have the "big box" look. And the corporation seems to be willing to respond in some way. So the city needs to keep pushing in that direction. How about some trees and landscaping on the site to ameliorate the acres of concrete? How about some support for local parks, or even for pursuing the "Tree City" program Robinson has been considering in recent years? Wal-Mart trumpets its "community service;" let's see how much money they'll put where their mouth is.
Marathon, of course, is the model in our area. Like Wal-Mart, they operate an enterprise that has a high impact on the community and they know it. It's no accident that many of the good works the refinery does here are connected to the environment and quality of life. We should expect no less of Wal-Mart.
Another thing we can do is expect the city to behave the same way. Robinson, by allowing Wal-Mart to expand, is allowing the community's business environment to change, which affects everyone, not just business owners. So the city needs to put in place some community-development resources, including some to help local businesses - not to subsidize them or give them special breaks, but to do some things that should have been done all along.
For example: If the Supercenter, as expected, raises the city's sales-tax receipts, why not take a share of that windfall and put it into a fund for grants or low-interest loans for downtown redevelopment? Why shouldn't Wal-Mart end up, indirectly, helping restore the facade of a downtown building, or helping a young entrepreneur succeed in a storefront shop? Sounds fair to me.
And one more thing we can do, as a business community, is refocus on how we treat customers. One reason Wal-Mart has been able to succeed in small towns is that local retailers have often, in the day-to-day pressure of keeping the doors open, forgotten the basics of why they're there.
Here's one scenario. If I walk into a local store wanting a big-ticket item, your job as the proprietor is not to let me leave until you have my money and I have the item. It doesn't matter if the installer doesn't work on Thursdays or the delivery guy is at a ballgame or the only one you have left is the demo. You will call the district manager for an OK, you will load the item in your own pickup and bring it to my house, you will find a friend of yours in the next town to come help you hook it up. Today. Free. That's what I expect from the big-box store. Why should I expect any less of you?
And there's the teenaged checker at the store who can't bring herself to interrupt the conversation with her friend while she's checking you out. And there's the clerk who, when you ask which techno-gadget you want to buy is compatible with the one you already have, says, "You got me, Bud." Common scenes, not unique to Robinson by any means - but no longer tolerable in today's business climate.
Customer service - radical, relentless, creative, resourceful - is what local businesses can offer that Wal-Mart will never be able or willing to offer. If you give the customer what he or she wants, instantly, cheerfully, knowledgeably, at a fair price, and fix it or replace it when it breaks, you're giving them a reason to come back - to say, "For this and that and the other I'll go to Wal-Mart, but for this, I'm coming here."
It's going to be different, for sure. But it doesn't have to be as bad as many of us think it could be. We just need to remember something local entrepreneur Ken Hohlbaugh told me several years ago: When change comes to a community, the most important thing is to be out in front of it, making things happen, rather than letting things happen to you.
The Supercenter is coming. But we don't have to let it happen to us.