Lately, the Morrison County Record has been promoting an upcoming Business Insights program that will feature guest speaker Dr. Kenneth Stone, an expert on the ramifications of “Big Box” retailers.  (The program is this coming Wednesday, in case you’re wondering.  Contact the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce for more info.)  The latest opinion piece from the Record that plugs the program states the following:

“One fact was true before the opening [of Super Wal-Mart] and it is still true today:  To survive in retailing, one needs to recognize that competition is a fact of life.  One needs to be resourceful, constantly search for new niches, and never rest on one’s laurels.  Today’s customers expect nothing less.”

Well, duh!   What have I been saying in previous posts on Fish Wrap?  Forgive me, but some of us do know what’s going on in the world and, no disrespect to Dr. Stone, we don’t always need an outside expert to point out the obvious.

When the Super Wal-Mart came to Little Falls this past August, the competitor that was in for the greatest run for its money was Coborn’s.  It had a lock on the largest share of the grocery business in Little Falls, having knocked many of its smaller competitors out of the field long ago.  While Coborn’s is a family-owned business, I can’t shed any crocodile tears over its new competition in grocery sales.  Coborn’s may be regional, but it’s also huge, encompassing the Coborn’s chain, Little Duke’s, Cash-wise, and Aunt Mabel’s.  Another branch of the family is in the greenhouse business (Fairview Gardens), and the Coborns are also into real estate development.   Wal-Mart is also a “family” business, if you recall.  Other than scale, there’s really no difference.

Because the Coborn’s grocery in Little Falls was operating in a market in which smaller grocery stores couldn’t properly compete, it could get away with charging customers higher prices than those charged in the Coborn’s stores in St. Cloud.  Someone I know once asked the manager of the Little Falls Coborn’s why the store charged higher prices and he replied, “Because we can.”  Nope, I’m not shedding a tear.

When the regular Wal-Mart store was open, people formed a habit – enough people so that the habit became a noticeable pattern.  They would go to Wal-Mart first and buy what they needed there – toilet paper, dog food, shampoo, toothpaste, clothing, etc. – and then they’d go to Coborn’s for their groceries.  Wal-Mart first, then Coborn’s, because many of the groceries from Coborn’s were perishable and people wanted to be able to go straight home after purchasing perishables.

When the Super Wal-Mart opened, for the first week or two the Coborn’s parking lot was so empty that a single cricket chirping was a cacophony.  Everyone was checking out the Super Wal-Mart, of course.  Traffic has come back to Coborn’s, but I’m not sure it has rebounded fully.  It’s not for lack of trying on Coborn’s part, however.  Have you noticed all the improvements that have been made there in the past year?  A new hardware store.  (Who complained about the competition this would cause the other local hardware stores?)  An expanded video section.  A new salad bar.  An olive bar.  Fine improvements, ones that attempt to meet customers’ needs.  (Although I certainly didn’t vote for the olive bar.  Olives, ick!)

As I’ve said before, Wal-Mart can’t do everything.  Not even a Super Wal-Mart can do everything.  After shopping at Super Wal-Mart, I realized there were several things I missed about Coborn’s.  I really, really appreciate Coborn’s meat department.  The fresh fruits and vegetables at Coborn’s seem to be of higher quality than the ones at Wal-Mart, although I do like the Ginger Gold apples from Wal-Mart.  Coborn’s also has a separate natural foods section, which makes it easier to find these items, whereas Wal-Mart mixes these things in with the rest of the groceries.  Coborn’s carries a brand of yogurt that comes in a large container in many different flavors.  Wal-Mart has large containers of yogurt, but they only come in a couple of flavors.  The other nice thing about Coborn’s is its size.  Sometimes you just want to run in and out of a store quickly and not have to cross a football field in order to find something.

So, there you have it – a prescription for Coborn’s to remain competitive.  Enhance the differences and Super Wal-Mart shouldn’t be a problem.  It’d also be helpful if Coborn’s would quit gouging us “because we can.”  Somehow, I think Wal-Mart will take care of that.

Dry-eyed for the competition,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel