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Round Lake Beach Walmart opens
By Mick Zawislak | Daily Herald Staff

Hardware department manager Doris Peleska of Ingleside readies for the opening of the new Walmart Supercenter in Round Lake Beach.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Toy department manager Reta Turner of Salem, Wis., says the Zhu Zhu Hamster will be this year's must-have toy. She is one of about a dozen employees who worked at the original Walmart store in Round Lake Beach and is moving to the new supercenter on Route 83.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Brenda Pomianek of Round Lake is personnel coordinator at the new Walmart Supercenter in Round Lake Beach. She hadn't heard of Walmart when she started 21 years ago.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Accessories department manager Silvia Rieder of Round Lake Beach sought a job at Walmart 21 years ago after seeing founder Sam Walton on a TV show. She is one of about a dozen employees who opened the original store in Round Lake Beach and will be working at the new one.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Store Manager Beth Dillon of Kenosha stands amid 1,004 new shopping carts ready to be put into service at the new Walmart Supercenter in Round Lake Beach.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/11/2009 5:05 PM

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The big-box age was gathering steam two decades ago as residents in and around Round Lake Beach got a taste of Walmart.

What is now the world's largest retailer was unknown to many in Lake County when its first suburban Chicago store opened New Year's Eve 1988 along Rollins Road just west of Route 83.

"I had never heard of Walmart. I didn't know what it was," explained Brenda Pomianek, who had answered a newspaper ad to work at the new store. That wasn't a problem, however.

"From the moment it opened, we had customers," she recalled.

Nearly 21 years later, the Round Lake resident and now the store's personnel coordinator was among about a dozen employees who greeted customers that first day and who are still around for the next generation of Walmart.

The original was deemed outdated, and at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 28, it will be officially retired - replaced by a much larger supercenter about a mile north on Route 83.

Today's Lake County landscape is a far cry from what it was when cows grazed nearby when Walmart first arrived. But by choosing the far northern suburb, the company known for its exhaustive research accurately forecast many more fields would fill with homes and potential shoppers.

Since then, the company has grown exponentially while transforming its image. Wider aisles, crisper graphics, better sight lines, multiple energy-saving measures and, most significantly, a grocery store are among many differences from the original version here.

The new store is 176,000 square feet, compared with the current 105,000, and will employ 140 additional people, for a work force of 350.

In this cavernous space for the past three weeks, Pomianek and co-workers Silvia Rieder of Round Lake Beach, Doris Peleska of Ingleside and Reta Turner of Salem, Wis., have been installing and stocking shelves to ready the new store for customers.

The placement of every peg, price tag and product is meant to instill a sense of ownership in employees.

"It's like a new home," Peleska said.

All four women have been with the local store for as long as it has been open, making careers of what they thought would be just one rung on their employment ladders.

Peleska had defected from Kmart.

"I was scared. I didn't know what (Walmart) was," she said.

In the early days, she unloaded trucks with a forklift and worked her way up to manager of the hardware department.

"My kids work at Walmart now," she said. A daughter has worked there the past 11 years.

Turner manages the toy department and also had a daughter who worked at the Round Lake Beach store for 11 years.

"I wasn't planning on staying long, but I like it," she said.

Rieder was looking for work to help with family bills when she saw a TV profile of founder Sam Walton, who died in 1992.

"I said, 'That's the man I want to work for,'" she recalled. She now manages the accessories department and still has a picture taken with Walton during a store visit years ago.

"He was like us," she said.

The longevity of these women with the same company is much rarer now than in days past when workers identified with their employer, according to John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an employment consultant.

"For lots of reasons, the company and the worker both have adopted the idea that working at a company for a long period of time is not as likely," he said. "It sounds like these people found a secure place in lots of ways."

The women say they have stayed because of the opportunity for advancement. Among them, they have worked about two dozen positions at the Round Lake Beach store.

Walmart says 11 percent of its massive work force has been with the company 20 years, and 17 percent for 15 years.

The company deflects criticism regarding employee-related matters, including a contention it has an anti-union stance.

Walmart workers in Illinois average $11.90 per hour, according to the company. The company also contributes to employee profit-sharing/401(k) plans and offers performance-based bonuses.

"It speaks more to the reality, less to the myth," said Tara Stewart, Walmart spokeswoman. "We're not GM. We're more comparable to restaurants. We're entry-level, but if you compare us to our true competitors, we stand up very well."

What customers will see in the new store is the latest prototype, as the company continues its transformation from the classic discount store model.

At the Round Lake Beach store, for example, the pharmacy and related products are directly across the aisle from the grocery.

"They've made a major shift in making the experience better for consumers," said Will Ander, senior partner with McMillan/Doolittle LLP, a retail consulting firm.

With the emphasis on keeping prices low, Walmart has become a "phenomenal distribution company" adept at managing inventory to provide what customers want, he added.

That includes better quality products, which have been drawing a different type of customer in a tight economy.

"We listened to our critics. We listened to our customers," Stewart said.

Ander predicted a flat to slight increase in overall retail sales this holiday season but believed Walmart would do OK.

"Nobody is doing well, but they'll be doing better than most," he said. "The interesting thing is whether they'll be able to keep those trade-down customers."

The supercenter is expected to generate about $75 million a year in sales, providing $200,000 more in sales-tax revenue to the village.