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Panorama

Standing behind the counter of his tiny jewelry kiosk in the Panorama Mall, Rudy Hussein looks out at the doors of what will be the first Wal-Mart to open within L.A. city limits.

Wal-Mart, the 800-pound gorilla of retailing, is well known for crushing competitors far more formidable than Hussein.

So is the Indian-born jewelry merchant worried? Not at all.

“Wal-Mart has a few pieces of this and a few pieces of that,” says Hussein, who has been operating his kiosk, Valley Gold, at the Panorama Mall for three years. “But they will not be able to bring in the range of items that this community wants.”

Rather than standing in fear of the retailing behemoth, Hussein is eagerly anticipating the increased foot traffic and wave of publicity that Wal-Mart is expected to generate when it opens a 165,000-square-foot department store the chain’s first multi-level outlet at the Panorama Mall.

The store is expected to open this fall, in time for the holiday shopping season.

Hussein’s reaction is typical of the other merchants at the mall, many of whom are in the midst of re-evaluating their merchandise to make sure their products are distinctly different from those offered by Wal-Mart.

“We don’t want to compete with Wal-Mart,” says Bahman Kohmanchi, owner of Fashion Expo, a young women’s clothing store that has been at the Panorama Mall for one year. “We’re going to complement them.”

Upon learning of Wal-Mart’s plans, Kohmanchi says he traveled to the chain’s nearby locations in Palmdale and Monrovia. He came away convinced of his ability to compete.

“What I carry and sell, Wal-Mart doesn’t carry and doesn’t sell,” he says.

The entry in Panorama City of Wal-Mart, a widely acknowledged symbol of mid-American sensibilities, into the East Valley’s largely Latino, Spanish-speaking population speaks volumes on L.A.’s changing marketplace.

Indeed, the majority of the signs and posters in the mall are printed in Spanish and most of its staff is multi-lingual. Its largest tenant is La Curacao, a department store geared solely to Latino shoppers, which is housed in a faux Mayan pyramid at the mall’s northern end.

In addition to stocking merchandise geared specifically to Hispanic tastes, La Curacao offers relatively easy financing to its customers many of whom do not have credit cards. The store also operates a service that allows customers to ship big-ticket items, such as televisions and washing machines, to family members throughout Latin America.

Those are the kinds of services Wal-Mart will never be able to match, says Fernando Schiantarelli, La Curacao’s advertising and marketing manager.

“We know how to target the Hispanics,” Schiantarelli says. “When they walk into our store, they understand this is a Hispanic store. We are more personal in terms of customer service. It gives us an edge on Wal-Mart.”

Despite that sense of optimism, not everyone will survive Wal-Mart’s entry into the mall, admits Louise Marquez, the mall’s manager and marketing director.

“There is going to be a shakeout,” she says. “There are going to be stores that are not going to re-merchandise. Or they’re going to try and go head-to-head with Wal-Mart. And that is not going to work.”

Stores specializing in lower-end goods or staple items, such as T-shirts, underwear, low-priced shoes or office supplies, are likely to be among the hardest hit by Wal-Mart’s low prices.

One of those merchants is Jim Rogers, owner of Lynn’s Hallmark.

“Not only does Wal-Mart carry cards, they carry cards by Hallmark,” he says.

Despite his concern, Rogers has no plans to vacate the mall; instead, he’s in the process of renegotiating a new multi-year lease.

“(Wal-Mart) obviously has the market cornered on price,” Rogers says. “But we can offer a lot more than Wal-Mart can in the way of customer service. If we look at the things we do well and not try and alter them, I think we’ll be OK.”

As Wal-Mart’s grand opening grows near, Marquez says the Panorama Mall has been swamped with inquiries from merchants looking to lease space evidently drawn by the anticipated rise in foot traffic.

They may have to wait. The 354,000-square-foot mall is 94-percent occupied, and that number will edge up slightly later this month, when Don Regalon, a Hispanic-oriented men’s clothing store, opens its doors.

Marquez says merchants also are attracted by the pending redevelopment of the former General Motors manufacturing plant nearby.

“It’s just one more step in the revitalization of the community,” she says. “People want to be here. It is going to be a very exciting six-to-eight months.”

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