Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

By Rod Thompson,Star-Bulletin
Lorraine Shin looks over the site of Wal-Mart's new store,
expected to open at Waiakea Center in Hilo early next year.

Big Island retailers
brace for Wal-Mart

The national chain’s store in Hilo
is scheduled to open in February

By Rod Thompson

HILO - Gardening store owner Leslie Hill plans a new reading room where customers can learn about plants. She's getting ready for competition from Wal-Mart.

Building supply company president Michael Fujimoto just finished a new retail building and plans a design consultation center.

It's his answer to "big boxes" like Wal-Mart.

Office supply business owner Tommy Hirano joined a national buyers' cooperative to get cheaper prices he can pass on to customers. But is that enough to compete with Wal-Mart?

"I guess so," Hirano said with uncertainty.

Like the warning carried by Paul Revere about the British coming, a new cry of alarm has gone out among Hilo businesses: "Wal-Mart is coming! Wal-Mart is coming!"

The national discount chain's new retail store at Waiakea Center will open in early February, said Ron Medrano, the company's district manager.

But the competition doesn't have to mean crisis, he suggested.

"Folks will retain their customer base if they take care of the customer," he said. "There are things there that we can't touch."

Hill's nursery business, Paradise Plants Home and Garden Center, has already broadened its scope by adding products like quilts from Bali.

Hill won't try to match Wal-Mart. If a pottery company sells to Wal-Mart, she won't carry that brand, she said.

Hill's new Wiwoole Street store, set to open Jan. 15, will offer free services such as the reading room, a tropical fruit library, and "Saturday morning seminars" on garden topics.

Like Hill, HPM Building Supply president Fujimoto prepared for change long ago. In 1991 he began plans that included joining the nationwide Hardware Wholesalers Inc., a cooperative.

Their expertise led to the opening of Fujimoto's new Do It Best store the weekend after Thanksgiving. Besides his normal product line, the store features a new equipment rental section.

Fujimoto is positive about the big retailers.

"It's going to be the best thing for the consuming public," he said.

Hirano's Stationer's Corp. store has also joined a national cooperative and is selling a more extensive range of products, which should give it an even chance against Wal-Mart. Hirano will sell and service a range of office-quality fax machines, for example. The Wal-Mart selection will be limited.

But Hirano, working for Stationer's since 1947, has been around too long to be complacent. "I think it will be a tough haul," he said. "As a whole, business in Hilo has never been an easy thing."

While Hill, Fujimoto, and Hirano are preparing for Wal-Mart's advent, others are waiting to see what happens, said Darryl Mleynek at the UH-Hilo Small Business Development Center Network. "I think there's some danger there," he said.

Still others are simply in denial, Mleynek said.

Customer service, which some observers view as an alien concept here, will be critical, said consultant Glenn Furuya.

"If it's not fast and friendly, forget it," he said.

One test of Wal-Mart's effect was its arrival in Kona, along with national discount stores Kmart and Costco, in the past two years.

Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce executive Marni Herkes noted that Pay Less Drug Stores closed their Kona location during that time.

Every weekend, Hilo shoppers have been driving to the new big stores in Kona, said Lorraine Shin, vice president of Waiakea Center. The coming of Wal-Mart to Hilo will slow that, she predicted. And not all of the money will be spent at Wal-Mart, she said.

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