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SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Meyer Abergel, the owner of Shoe4U, a brand-name ladies footwear discounter, is renovating his storefront and starting an advertising campaign later this summer. Jakob Schneider is printing new flyers for his restaurant, Villa Wahnsinn. And at La Curacao, a home furnishings department store, managers are adding hours to employees’ work schedules to prepare for the added business. Stores and restaurants in and around the Panorama Mall are sprucing up and getting down to business with expectations that Wal-Mart, newly established in the shopping center, will bring more customers and more sales to the neighborhood. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, which opened its first Los Angeles-area store late last month, is occupying the mall’s only anchor position, a spot that has been vacant since The Broadway closed its doors about two years ago. Without a big department store to draw traffic, area merchants say business has been slow. And unlike many other towns, where the entry of the big-box retailer has drawn fear and loathing because of its ability to out-price independent stores, shopkeepers in Panorama City are enthusiastic about their new rival. “The grand opening created a lot of (customer) traffic,” said Mike Ledezma, store manager at La Curacao, which is located at the north end of the mall. “So for the mall, Wal-Mart is doing a tremendous job.” It’s too early to gauge the impact of the added foot traffic on sales, but the shopkeepers expect to see that change in three months to a year. Wal-Mart exceeded its sales plan by 20 percent in its first week of operation, according to Javier Rincon, assistant manager at the store. Some 43,709 customers passed through the store’s registers in its first full week of operation beginning May 23; an average 9,500 customers made purchases each day since the opening. The amount of foot traffic is welcome news to shop owners up and down Van Nuys Boulevard, where the mall is situated. “If not for Wal-Mart, customers wouldn’t come here,” said Abergel, whose shoe store is a few blocks north of the mall. Abergel said he’s not concerned about competition from Wal-Mart because his shop sells name brands not available at the big discounter. To take advantage of the added traffic he expects Wal-Mart to bring to the area, Abergel is beginning a television advertising campaign on July 1, and he has begun to renovate the storefront. “We’re going to have more signs around, and we’re facelifting the store, and hopefully all the new traffic will discover the place,” Abergel said. Panorama City’s shopping district has been slowly deteriorating since 1992 when General Motors closed the plant at the southern end of the city. Still more businesses shuttered after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, and in 1996 The Broadway was closed following the acquisition of its parent company, Carter Hawley Hale, by Federated Department Stores. To keep occupancy levels stable, the Panorama Mall has brought in short-term tenants “on a try-and-see basis,” said Louise Marquez, manager and marketing director for the mall. As a result, occupancy, at about 93 percent, “is about the same,” Marquez said. Sales increases, however, have been meager, ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent, Marquez said. “They suffered for two-and-a-half years without an anchor. It’s one thing for larger malls that have three anchor stores, but this is the only one we have,” Marquez said. Without these larger retailers or a strong office trade, “Honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to be in Panorama City,” said Scott Blakeman, general manager of Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus. “This area hasn’t recovered since the earthquake. A tall office building behind us is still boarded up. And it used to account for a lot of lunch business.” Now, with Wal-Mart’s opening, “I’m anticipating improvement,” he said. Like Blakeman, Villa Wahnsinn owner Schneider is optimistic about the added business Wal-Mart will bring. Schneider opened the eatery about two years ago unaware of the economic distress in the area. “I came from the Westside, and I didn’t know what Panorama City was,” Schneider said. He has redesigned flyers to promote the restaurant in the hopes that Wal-Mart employees will begin frequenting Villa Wahnsinn for lunch. He is also planning to raise his prices in anticipation of the added business. “I think in the long run it (Wal-Mart) really helps,” Schneider said. “It’s a matter of doing some promotion, and I think by the end of the year or the beginning of next year it’s going to turn around,” said Schneider. For restaurants, there is no downside to Wal-Mart’s arrival. But retailers’ enthusiasm does not come without reservations. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer with over 2,300 stores and sales of $83.8 billion for the year ended Jan. 31, has effectively eliminated whole communities of independent retailers in some of the markets it has entered. Many of the merchants that are welcoming the store’s arrival do not compete directly with the chain. Those who do compete in some areas are revising their mix of merchandise. “In small appliances and jewelry, we can’t compete with them on price,” said Ledezma at La Curacao. “There’s no way, they’re humongous. So we’re moving out of some lines and getting some new lines.” Officials at Montgomery Ward, which is located just opposite the mall, are hoping that the store’s recently upgraded mix of more fashionable merchandise will also keep it from being directly impacted by Wal-Mart. “Wal-Mart is always going to have an effect on sales,” said Mike Lande, store manager. “We won’t even talk about that. But there’s not much crossover.” Others aren’t so sure. “I can see 50 percent of the independents going out of business because Wal-Mart has driven people out of business,” said Abergel. “Ordinary stores will be forced out.” Still, the promise of added business has most merchants optimistic. “I’ve seen people who say they haven’t been in the mall in 15 years, and because of Wal-Mart, (they) decided to come visit,” said Ledezma. These shopkeepers figure that if they do their jobs right, shoppers attracted by Wal-Mart can become their customers as well. “We’re getting new people coming into the building, and they’re seeing we’re different than we were,” said Lande. “It’s a real plus.”

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