MIRRORING THE U.S. STRATEGY

WEISBADEN, Germany -- The numbers may still not be dropping down to the bottom line as they do in the United States, but everything else about Wal-Mart's operations here in Germany is increasingly resembling the giant retailer's American business.Just over three years after making its first moves into Germany by buying up the Wertkauf chain of hypermarket-like combo-stores, the world's biggest retailer

WEISBADEN, Germany -- The numbers may still not be dropping down to the bottom line as they do in the United States, but everything else about Wal-Mart's operations here in Germany is increasingly resembling the giant retailer's American business.

Just over three years after making its first moves into Germany by buying up the Wertkauf chain of hypermarket-like combo-stores, the world's biggest retailer has clearly succeeded in transforming the stores into spitting images of their American cousins. Combined with the purchase a year later in December 1998 of the Interspar chain, Wal-Mart now operates a 95-unit network of stores here, each renamed and remerchandised to fit the corporate profile.

And while Wal-Mart will admit it has had more than its share of troubles making its German business unit perform up to the amazing standards of its U.S. division, a walk through the store here, a half-hour's drive northwest of Frankfurt, shows a transformation process that is only remarkable when you know what the stores looked like before.

This particular store, a two-level, freestanding general merchandise and food unit, was a typical German discount store when Wal-Mart took it over. Product presentation was pedestrian, if underwhelming. Housekeeping left much to be desired and the merchandising consisted of odd adjacencies and lackluster assortments.

Today, the store sports a modified racetrack floorplan, a healthy use of Wal-Mart's legendary four-way fixtures and enough yellow smiley faces advertising price rollbacks that you'd swear you were in Bentonville, Ark.

That's not all that has followed the retailer to Europe. Some U.S. home manufacturers have started supplying products to the German operation and at least one American store brand, Select Editions, turns up on shelves here, used for a solid-color sheet program.

Even the area rug fixture developed for Wal-Mart's American stores is here, with the same inventory slots and the sliding display racks.

Housewares sports several familiar brands, although they are European-based: Krups -- which does not sell to Wal-Mart in the United States -- and Braun, for instance. Pyrex cookware is part of the mix, although from a licensed European source.

In tabletop, Arc is a major supplier in glassware, where curiously many products are offered in sets of three as opposed to the more traditional four or six likely to be found in the United States. Unlike a Wal-Mart store in the States, display fixtures show vignetted product assortments of assorted tabletop products.

Reflecting the German market, Wal-Mart's furniture assortment is larger than you might find in its American stores, although most if not all of it appears to be of ready-to-assemble configuration.

But the store clearly says Wal-Mart, from the sign over the front door to the 34 checkout lanes. The words may be in German, but the merchandising language is universal.