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Smaller Merchants Gird for Opening of Oxnard Wal-Mart : Business: The nation’s biggest retailer will hold a ‘dry run’ today. Other store owners worry about the competition.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jittery merchants large and small are bracing for the latest, and perhaps most fierce, retailing war yet to strike Oxnard.

Cash registers in the giant Wal-Mart will begin lighting up today, and local merchandisers are plotting strategy and drawing up marketing schemes to counteract the initial drop in sales many expect Ventura County’s newest discount retailer to bring them.

“I hope we survive,” said Dong Choi, owner of the Sport Shoes store on Saviers Road for the past four years.

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“This business is very slow right now, and it’s going down, so with another big store opening. . . .,” she said, her voice trailing off. “We’re very concerned about our business.”

Wal-Mart officials have announced a grand opening for the store on Tuesday, but a manager at the Oxnard store said they will open for “dry runs” at 9 a.m. today.

“Basically, we open up the doors and see who shows up,” said assistant manager Jon Otterbacher. “We make sure everything works and that the cashiers can handle whatever people come through the doors.”

Norm Grow, who manages the Target store on Vineyard Avenue, said he expects his business to suffer in the immediate future, but he is confident that his company can compete with any other, including the nation’s largest retailer.

“In other markets where (Wal-Mart) has opened, sales have dropped a little bit,” Grow said. “But then we start seeing them climb back after six months or a year. The impact is a temporary one because the customers seem to come back.”

HomeBase manager Richard Harrison said he has hired 10 additional people in an effort to better serve his customers and compete with Wal-Mart.

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“I’m hoping to present our customers with great service so they don’t have to go to the competition,” he said. “But I’m not really that worried about it. We’ll just go head to head. Competition brings out the best in everybody.”

Several businesses said they planned to survey Wal-Mart and its pricing structure as soon as its doors open.

“I’ll go check it out, see what they carry and see what we’re up against,” Harrison said.

But smaller specialty shop owners say they have much to fear. Many Oxnard merchants worry that Wal-Mart will deliberately underprice merchandise to drive them out of business.

“If they come in with below-cost merchandise, there’s not much you can do,” said Wallace Jue, owner of Pacific Drug, a pharmacy that has been in business on North A Street for more than two decades.

“If they play a fair game, I welcome the competition,” Jue said. “But if they do what they’ve done in other states, then yeah, it’s scary.”

Earlier this month, a judge in Arkansas--where Wal-Mart is headquartered--found the company guilty of predatory pricing.

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Judge David Reynolds ordered the Wal-Mart in Conway, Ark., to stop selling drugs and beauty products below cost and to pay three area drug stores almost $300,000 in damages.

Wal-Mart said it would appeal the decision, but similar suits also are pending in Colorado and Oklahoma. More than two dozen states, including California, have passed laws against such pricing tactics.

Mark Schniepp, an economics researcher at UC Santa Barbara, said some businesses are certain to become casualties of Wal-Mart after it opens in Ventura County.

“Unless there’s a real specialization of product, then that kind of competition from Wal-Mart or the like will be very problematic for the small guy,” said Schniepp, director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, which examines the Santa Barbara and Ventura county economies.

“But other businesses that sell somewhat peripheral products, their business could be enhanced because they’ve got more customers in the area,” he said.

As markets evolve around demand- and consumer-driven investments, more traditional goods-and-service businesses will fade, Schniepp said.

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“Look what’s happened to the diner,” he said. “It’s become extinct.”

Wal-Mart already is planning a second Ventura County store in Simi Valley.

Voters there will decide Nov. 2 whether to allow the company to build on a hillside reserved originally for a regional mall. Opponents say the site would never attract a mall developer with Wal-Mart as a neighbor.

Not every Oxnard merchant is afraid of being steam-rolled. John McDougall of Fremont Pharmacy called Wal-Mart “just another hand in the pie.”

“I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing all these years, which is to provide service to the people we deal with,” said McDougall, who has been in business in Oxnard for more than 30 years.

Others are confident they can overcome competition from discount retailers because they have carved out their own market share over years of personal contact.

“We have the experience and the knowledge here that when customers come in asking about plumbing or electrical problems, we can explain it to them,” said Steve Woods, manager of Keene’s Hardware on Pleasant Valley Road.

“Home Depot and HomeBase came, Builder’s Emporium came and went, and we’re still here.”

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