WAL-MART READIES CALIF. SUPERCENTER

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- In an ironic confluence of events, Wal-Mart Stores is scheduled to open its first California supercenter here Wednesday, just as the Southern California strike-lockout -- inspired in large part by Wal-Mart's pending entry -- appeared to be winding down last week.The 225,000-square-foot store will operate in this upscale desert community, located approximately 130 miles east of

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- In an ironic confluence of events, Wal-Mart Stores is scheduled to open its first California supercenter here Wednesday, just as the Southern California strike-lockout -- inspired in large part by Wal-Mart's pending entry -- appeared to be winding down last week.

The 225,000-square-foot store will operate in this upscale desert community, located approximately 130 miles east of Los Angeles, 60 miles east of San Bernardino and 20 miles east of Palm Springs.

The supercenter replaces a 127,000-square-foot Wal-Mart discount store across the street that has operated here for 12 years.

Local sources said the supercenter has the potential to do $1 million a week in sales.

Wal-Mart has said it plans to open 40 supercenters in California over the next four to six years. Asked why the company chose La Quinta for the first one, Pete Kanelos, manager of community affairs for Southern California for the Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter, told SN, "We've had a great response from customers in that area and a lot of requests to bring a supercenter there, so it was an obvious choice."

The food side of the store will be supplied out of the company's grocery distribution center in Casa Grande, Ariz. The second California supercenter is not expected to open for at least nine months, Kanelos told SN.

The supercenter will compete with single units of Albertsons, Vons and Stater Bros. in La Quinta and another Stater Bros. store two-and-a-half miles away in Indio.

Representatives of Albertsons and Safeway-owned Vons could not be reached for comment last week on what changes they have made at their stores in anticipation of the supercenter opening, though local sources said both have been too distracted by the strike-lockout to do much preparation. "They've just been trying to survive," an observer told SN.

Jack Brown, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif., said executives from his company have been studying Wal-Mart stores all over the country for the last three years "to see what we needed to change."

What the chain has done is upgrade perishables, expanding produce to 450 items -- 80 more than most chains carry, Brown pointed out; expand fresh seafood, a category Wal-Mart supercenters don't carry; and replace Select beef with both Choice and Prime in its self-service and service meat cases.

In addition, Stater has invested in customer-service training -- something that has served it well during the strike-lockout, Brown said, and that will continue to reap benefits once the supercenter opens, he added. "We believe our people will determine who wins this race," he declared.

Brown said he doubts Stater will lose much business permanently to the supercenter. "Several people may try the new store, but over the course of two months, we think most of them will drift back."

Gary Giblen, senior vice president and director of research for C L King Associates, New York, said Wal-Mart may have selected La Quinta for its first California supercenter "because California is such an important growth area for them, and it will be easier to experiment or correct mistakes in a more outlying area like La Quinta than if they were in a high-population area in Orange County."