Taking on Wal-Mart

Gilroy’s small business owners offered a chance to learn
‘guerrilla marketing’
Gilroy – Surviving as a small business is never easy, especially when 220,000 square feet of discount giant moves in next door. In anticipation of the September opening of the Wal-Mart Supercenter, small business owners in Gilroy will have a chance to learn “guerrilla marketing” and other business tactics that can help them survive in a jungle of big box stores.

The retail giant is paying for the classes as one of 42 conditions placed on approval of its expanded commercial space in the Pacheco Pass Shopping Center. Small business owners will have four chances to attend the summer class, with the sessions split between June and August.

“Guerrilla marketing is the new terminology for making yourself well known,” said Tim Hendrick, the San Jose State University advertising and marketing professor who will teach the class. “It could be blogs, Internet marketing, special kinds of promotions — really getting people to talk about your service.”

Successful competition also hinges on getting to know customers and continuing relationships. The approach could involve creating a customer database, surveying customers to cater to their needs, and advertising through direct mail, newspapers, the Internet, and other mediums.

“It’s really an integrated approach,” Hendrick said. “It’s absolutely something that small businesses can afford to do. It’s knowing what can be effective while fitting your budget.”

The Gilroy Chamber of Commerce notified its members earlier in the week about the classes, while the Economic Development Corporation sent out word through the Gavilan Small Business Development Center.

Sue Thurman, owner of Country Clutter off San Ysidro Avenue, was among the first to sign up for the classes. She said competing with Wal-Mart is nothing new for her store, which for 10 years has sold small furniture pieces, kitchen accessories, and other home items within a mile of the current Wal-Mart off Camino Arroyo Boulevard.

“I have Wal-Mart down the street from us now and I’ve always considered them competition,” Thurman said. “The more information we have the better we’ll do. Everybody competes for the same discretionary dollars.”

The key for many stores will involve establishing relationships with clients, or renewing the personalized service that has fallen by the wayside over the years, according to Jane Howard, Gilroy’s economic development director. She said her own tire business had to adapt when Wal-Mart first came to Gilroy about 10 years ago.

“You need to do post cards, thank you notes – nowadays you probably do e-mails,” Howard said. “It’s that personal touch.”

The training course is designed to help retailers become efficient at their current scale, whether or not they offer the same products or services as Wal-Mart, according to Hendrick.

“In some cases it’s specializing, in other cases it’s broadening your base – who you sell to,” he said. “In many cases stores don’t realize there are markets out there that they’re not tapping into.”

The small business classes are one of several dozen conditions city officials placed on the supercenter during the approval process in early 2004. Each class will cost about $400, according to Howard.

The supercenter proposal met strong opposition from local businesses, environmentalists, and union members, who packed council meetings last year as the project passed through the regulatory process. In addition to the business training classes, city councilmen won a few small concessions from the company, including its agreement to replace the standard supercenter arcade with an environmental education center and to institute an aggressive local hiring program.

While some business owners continue to worry about the effects of an expanded Wal-Mart, Thurman has already taken some steps to strengthen her client base. She said her store has always offered personalized Christmas ornaments, for instance, but recently expanded the service to a wider range of products.

“People that come to us have a specific idea of what they want when they walk in the doors,” she said. “We do feel that customer service is the difference for us. That’s why we’re still in business 10 years later.”

Training dates

The city will offer training seminars to help small businesses compete with Wal-Mart Supercenter, scheduled to open in Gilroy in September. The classes take place:

• June 14, 8 to 11am

• June 23, 6 to 9pm

• Aug. 9 and 16, 6 to 9pm

All sessions take place at Gavilan College Small Business Development Center, in Dry Creek Village Center, 8351 Church Street, Building E, Gilroy. To register, contact the Gavilan business center at 847-0373.

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