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    Competitive Watch: Mass Merchants Try Drive-Thrus

    Sears, Meijer and Walmart are among those conducting tests in the Chicago area.

    CHICAGO -- During the past year, the Chicago area has turned into a retail testing ground for mass merchants to experiment with drive-thrus. According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, Sears Holdings Corp. started last spring by turning a Kmart store in Joliet into a drive-thru warehouse. Meijer Inc. then followed suit with GroceryExpress drive-ups at stores in St. Charles and Aurora. And Walmart opened its first drive-thru at a recently remodeled store in Mount Prospect.

    While the concept is fledgling and there are kinks to work out, retail analysts predict that mass merchant drive-thrus will be moving into the mainstream as baby boomers age and the Internet changes the way people shop.

    "This is our first shot at this," Rob Fleener, vice president of business development at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer, told the newspaper. "There are a lot of things we'll do to improve this once we decide to roll it out. Right now, we're learning as much as we can."

    Walmart hasn't sent out any marketing materials to let shoppers know about the drive-thru site, but instead is quietly testing it as customers ask about it. "It's just one of the ways we continue to test options," company spokesman Ravi Jariwala said.

    Sears also is testing its drive-thru MyGofer format without advertising.

    "We are constantly improving it," said Sears spokeswoman Brenda Storch.

    Retail expert Will Ander, a partner at McMillan Doolittle LLP, said general merchants have tried and failed in the past to figure out how to incorporate a drive-thru. Ander was part of a team of merchants studying drive-thru prospects at Montgomery Ward in the 1980s and 1990s. It didn't work because there were too many products.

    "The real challenge is, how do you fill a complex order?" Ander explained. "You can't have [clerks] running all over the store."

    Sears tackled that problem by eliminating the store and turning the empty shell into a warehouse where workers pick merchandise efficiently. Meanwhile, Meijer built a separate alcove with refrigerators, cash registers and sliding glass doors overlooking a small parking lot and dedicated up to six clerks to staff it. Walmart has limited the types of merchandise shoppers could order, according to the report.

    "At this point in retail, everybody is just trying to capture another little wedge of the pie," said Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail. "You can't overlook anything. It's a new game, and every option has to be considered."

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