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  • Jennifer Marks
  • Thomas Russell

Hometown hero or horror?

Tricky thing about consumers — they cherish their retail institutions, even as they ignore them to the point of extinction.

The recent news that Federated Department Stores would shutter 11 stores in the south, then combine Rich's and Macy's under a hyphenated nameplate was simply a "say what?" piece of information in the wider world. But down on the ground in Atlanta, where the Rug Show was taking place, it was treated as an epochal story.

The announcement dominated The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's front page, and the paper devoted nearly four full pages to its coverage of the closings and how they would affect the regional retail landscape.

This kind of reaction isn't unusual, and it often makes me think of my hometown in Illinois. It's a "Wal-Mart Kind of Town." That's not my description, by the way. The term came from Wal-Mart, which featured Olney in one of a series of "Wal-Mart Kind of Town" commercials it ran during the early 1990s to demonstrate that its stores actually had a positive impact on small communities.

Truth be told, Wal-Mart's arrival ultimately resulted in the demise of all but two of Olney's downtown stores and simultaneously created a small retailing outpost just over the city line.

You'll find plenty of folks in Olney today who still bemoan the loss of their Main Street stores. That's despite the fact that a Wal-Mart food DC built on another parcel outside town provides employment for people within a radius of some 75 miles.

And complainers often ignore the frequency with which they visit the new supercenter that replaced the old discount store built around 1980. That supercenter unquestionably is the largest retail emporium within an hour's drive of town — and the next largest emporium would be another Wal-Mart supercenter in almost any direction you traveled.

Large retailers that lure shoppers away from their old stores by offering better bargains and assortments need to guard against being perceived as faceless corporate machines in the process.

Complain though they do, if you offered to restore old Main Street and zap Wal-Mart off the face of the earth, I don't think the sentimental folk could accept the tradeoff. That would mean that a mom whose child informed her at 7 p.m. that he was supposed to show up at school the next morning in a Halloween costume would probably have to rummage up something from whatever was available in the house. Nurses working the night shift could shop only on their days off. And anybody who ran out of anything on a Sunday would have to borrow from the neighbors.

All retailing, like politics, is local.