Sunday, August 1, 2004

Shoppers weigh price, inventory vs. hectic nature of 'big boxes'



By Randy Tucker
Enquirer staff writer

SPECIAL REPORT: GROCERY WARS
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The Wal-Mart Supercenter in Dry Ridge would be better named "Wal-Mart Superhighway," according to Barbara Williams of Corinth.

"The parking lot is always jammed, the lines are horrible, and when it's packed, driving a cart through the aisles is like riding the bumper cars at Kings Island," Williams said as she left the store on a weekday afternoon.

But despite her complaints, Petersen said she would never consider shopping anywhere else.

"It's a big store, and you pretty much do have to hunt everything down," she said. "But I can find just about everything I need here, and you can't beat the prices."

Many shoppers share Williams' love/hate relationship with their local big-box retailers, which average 150,000 square feet in size - about three times the average Kroger.

Most shoppers would probably prefer a store that was easier to navigate, experts say. And many are put off by the size of the big boxes.

Carol Maas of Norwood is one such shopper. She said she does most of her shopping at the Hyde Park Kroger because she likes the service and selection. She said she doesn't shop at discount stores or stores that aren't full-service because "I don't need the stress.

"When I go grocery shopping, I want to find what I'm looking for in a hurry and get in and out fast, without a lot of hassle," Maas said.

"I'm willing to pay extra for the fast checkout and other services you get at Kroger that you don't get at other places."

It's an attitude that Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. is counting on.

"We don't want to have giant superstores because a lot of our customers are intimidated by stores that are overwhelming in size," said Kroger spokesman Gary Rhodes.

But the fact is that smaller stores can't offer the product selection and prices as the big-box chains because they're not big enough to house the same inventory.

And while many consumers say they appreciate the convenience and basic goods and services found at neighborhood shopping centers, shopping patterns show they are spending more at big chains.

Five of America's Top 10 retailers are big-box chains, according to Stores magazine's annual list of the nation's 100 biggest retailers.

Ten years ago, only two big-box retailers were in the Top 10: Wal-Mart, now No. 1, and Kmart, which has fallen to No. 14.

"The size of the big-box retailers certainly is a turnoff to some consumers," said retail guru Stan Eichelbaum, president of Cincinnati-based Marketing Developments Inc. "But when you look at the price differential of Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers and the depth of their inventory compared to smaller stores, there's no comparison. The smaller stores generally lose customers to the bigger retailers because they have everything in one place and lower prices."

One disadvantage big stores have is their location.

Because of their size, big-box operators almost always locate in suburbs or rural areas. Kroger, for instance, has 74 stores in Greater Cincinnati, while Wal-Mart will have 12 supercenters stretching from Oxford to Dry Ridge.

E-mail rtucker@enquirer.com




SPECIAL REPORT: GROCERY WARS
Who'll bag the shoppers?
Shoppers weigh price, inventory vs. hectic nature of 'big boxes'
Kroger has never been on this track before
Kroger tilts with non-union giants

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