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Getting Hitched

How does the world's biggest retailer cater to a small, highly specialized community? WWD went to Ohio to find out.

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Few would count the skeleton of a schoolyard fence, stripped of its wire mesh, a shopping amenity — unless, of course, you happen to live in Middlefield, Ohio, home to the fourth-largest Amish population in the nation, and need a space in the parking lot to station your horse and buggy. Run-of-the-mill lots don’t cut it; just where would you hitch that steed?

Luckily for the Amish folk in Geauga County, the brass at Wal-Mart understands this parking plight. Last month, a Wal-Mart opened in Middlefield and made headlines for its Amish-friendly accommodations, such as hitching posts for a maximum of 84 horse-drawn carriages. Even Jay Leno took notice and gave the small, rural town of 2,500 air time the Monday after the opening, quipping that “[the new Wal-Mart was] doing much better than the Amish Circuit City that opened down the block.”

“Nationally, it’s big news,” says Sue Scheleger, manager of the Glad Tidings Bookstore, located across the street from the discount retailer. “I was, like, wow, Jay Leno is talking about Middlefield. To us, we just think, OK, we have a Wal-Mart.”

But not just any old Wal-Mart. Hitching posts aside, store manager Paul Franz, a Chicago native, has taken other measures to ensure that the Amish conveniences extend well after a customer — and about 25 percent are Amish — walks through the door and into the 156,643-square-foot space. There are manual lawn mowers for sale, canning supplies and a considerable fabric department with an emphasis on monotone grays, navys and blacks.

“We sell a lot of gardening tools,” Franz adds, “and yard games, like kick ball, football, badminton-type stuff. You know, the kids don’t do the [Sony] PS2s.” And forget the typical small bag of crushed ice; this store stocks 25-pound ice blocks, since refrigerators — which use electricity — are taboo among the Amish. For those very reasons, the 12-year veteran of Wal-Mart also notes, “we sell a lot of Velveeta cheese.”

“The whole community caters to the Amish [here],” says Franz, who previously managed stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and New York. “We knew going in that it was going to be some of the customer base. We’ve learned a lot more since we’ve been here. We go out into the community and pick up on things, like the block ice.”

Catering to the customer’s needs is key to any retail endeavor, but the Amish tack the Middlefield Wal-Mart has taken is, for all the national headlines, simply about staying in the game. Local competitors, like the neighboring outpost of the grocery chain Sparkle Market, all include hitching posts in their parking lots.

“We all try to cater to the Amish,” says Eric Schafer, manager of Sparkle Market, “and, to be quite frank, that’s how we’ve survived. If you don’t cater to your customers, you won’t be in business for that long.” Call it survival of the retail fittest.

Reaction has been varied — many in Middlefield worried about the increase in traffic as well as the survival of mom-and-pop shops — but most residents agree that Wal-Mart’s entrance into their town is a plus, filling a general-store niche previously held by a local Ames, which went out of business in 2002. “We needed something like this in the community. We didn’t have any big-box stores here,” says Ann Strumbly, a Geauga County native. “A lot of people were worried that we would lose our small-town feel, but it’s been good so far.”

“It’s amazing that Wal-Mart is in Middlefield,” says Irene Miller, an Amish woman who works at Mary Yoder’s Amish Kitchen, who noted that she’s always shopped Wal-Mart. Now she won’t have to pay a driver to take her to the next closest one, almost 45 minutes away. “It’s nice that it’s local and we don’t have very far to go.”

Miller, however, does have one recommendation for Franz and the Wal-Mart team: “It would be nice to have a buggy path down there,” she says, “because it’s getting very busy.”

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