Business and community representatives gathered for a sneak preview of the first Wal-Mart superstore in Alaska on Monday night, getting a glimpse of merchandise and prices ahead of the store's Wednesday opening.
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Bob Martin, vice president of operations for Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation, came to the tour with his wife, Ginny, who had often stocked up on art supplies at out-of-town Wal-Marts while traveling. She said the store will be a boon to the community because of lower prices and increased variety and selection.
Bob Martin said price competition will be a good thing and possibly draw people from outlying communities, but the store also will increase pressure on a tightening labor market and drive up wages.
Wal-Mart: The Numbers
Planned number of employees: 250
Employees already on staff: 180.
Average hourly wage in Alaska for full-time employees: $11.97.
Store square footage: 121,000 square feet.
Contributions to local charities: $33,250.
Number of Wal-Marts now open in Alaska, including Sam's Clubs: 11.
Average number of Wal-Marts opening each week in the world: 2.
"I'm sure there will be some that will hurt, but, overall, prices will be driven downward, and for people who are living on a margin, that's going to be a benefit," he said, adding that competition is fierce for good employees.
"For employees, it's a good time," he said.
The store is still hiring for a planned work force of 250 employees. About 180 of those have already been hired, and several more are now being screened, store manager Kai Kauai said. About 75 percent of those employees are full time, Kauai said. The average hourly wage for a Wal-Mart worker in Alaska is $11.97, according to a company statement.
At least two years in the planning, extensive renovations at the site formerly occupied by Kmart started in November 2006. Kauai said he gained full rein over the space on July 23, and it's taken about eight weeks to prepare the aisles and pack them full of merchandise.
The Lemon Creek store includes a grocery section, deli, pharmacy and an expanded section featuring sporting goods and electronics.
John Holmquist, co-owner of Evergreen Ford, said price competition will be good, but he always worries a little bit about small business owners.
"I am concerned about the small business people who are going to feel the pinch. I would hope that there are niches that small businesses have to find that aren't provided for in the big-box stores," Holmquist said.
Kauai said he's opened stores in Texas and Utah and did not see local businesses suffer.
"The customers really tell the tale there," Kauai said. "They support and are loyal to the businesses that take care of them. It's been my experience that when we put a new store in, other businesses follow, rather than businesses closing. You just never know."
Restaurants and banks are big followers of Wal-Mart to some communities, Kauai said.
The store has made $32,250 in charitable contributions to 10 area organizations, a step that demonstrates its commitment to community involvement, Kauai said.
Wal-Mart opens an average of two stores per week throughout the world, according to Alaska Market Manager Tim Scott.