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Wal-Mart: The sky isn't falling; it's just some raindrops

Wal-Mart’s arrival here will, as Eliot Sill suggests, be both the best of times and the worst of times for Marion County.

Yes, it will mean more competition for some businesses, but we’re confident the business leaders most challenged are the exact type who aren’t about to let price rollbacks roll over their businesses.

They realize that low prices may appeal to some — especially to those who lost good-paying positions with shoe stores, furniture stores, clothing stores, and even their own local competitors during retail competitions of the past.

They also see how people like insurance agents have learned to emphasize not just price but service to survive and thrive. Think it’s hard to compete with a big-box store? Try having to pay for a local office and staff when your competition pays only for an animated gecko and an 800 number.

Nearly every business in Marion County has come to realize that if competition is solely about how cheap something can be — and we mean that both in terms of price and quality — they probably aren’t going to win. That doesn’t mean they have to play the game dictated by multinational corporations doing business with overseas sweat shops.

Eliot is right, too, that many people not only want low prices but also want familiar names.

Yet one of the first things he and two friends marveled over when he was deciding whether to come to Marion County were the soft-serve desserts at Prairie Oak Farms Alpaca Store.

Yes, a Dairy Queen would bring in more highway traffic, but if Marion County is to become not just another non-descript, suburb-like community, filled with the same franchise-row businesses that can be found in any town in North America, we need places like a combination alpaca and ice cream store.

Look at the artistically focused communities we might someday hope to emulate — Door County and Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, for example. There aren’t McDonald’s and Starbucks and Wal-Marts in their business districts. There are unique shops that make their name on their own, not as part of some franchise.

What we have to do is stop expecting local businesses that sell the same type of products as the new Wal-Mart will to beat Wal-Mart prices. They can’t now, and that won’t change once Wal-Mart arrives here.

We can, however, expect them to beat Wal-Mart on service and selection.

It may be a difficult transition for any local merchants who may have grown complacent — though, frankly, we’ve never seen any we regard as complacent.

The bigger challenge is expecting understanding from the community. Whether that comes is another matter. But just as we ourselves recently lost a bid to supply paper to the county because a huge out-of-county firm bid a few cents less than we did, everyone will have to adapt, just as we have adapted by trying to provide more and better news rather than cheaper and cheaper volume-at-all-costs products.

We also appreciate the sentiment of our own now out-of-town-owned competitors in the newspaper business, who claim they won’t accept ad dollars from Wal-Mart.

It’s not a terribly meaningful promise, of course, since Wal-Mart tends to run its own mail-to-every-household operation and disdains newspaper advertising. It also has a bit of a hollow ring when our competitors’ pages already tend to feature ads for local firms’ out-of-county competitors, especially from Newton, where our competitor maintains an active sales staff, and from elsewhere around Wichita, where our competitor now has other media holdings, which it packages into huge buys for huge businesses.

Rather than a negative boycott, we would rather put our positive faith in local consumers and business people who, in the end, will become stronger by not trying to compete head-on with big box stores, accepting the local jobs and savings that they will bring, and improving local stores’ selection and service in the process.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Sept. 18, 2014

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