Night out: Some shoppers prefer late shift

July 17, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

It was about 1 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Hagerstown teenagers Leanne Rock and Symphony Wilson had a long shopping list that included food, clothes and batteries, about seven hours in which to shop, do their laundry, pack, and sleep, and one thought on their minds: Thank goodness for late-night retail.

"I just flew in from Florida and we're rushing around trying to get everything we need," said Wilson, 16.

The two were leaving at 8:30 a.m. for Rockbridge, a Young Life camp in Virginia, and confessed they didn't know what they'd do without the 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter.

"Probably try to find what we need at Sheetz," said Rock, 17.

By the time the two teenagers turned into the parking lot, most of the stores in the Centre at Hagerstown were dark and deserted, but the parking lot outside the grocery area of Wal-Mart was packed.


They had stepped into the bright corner of late-night Hagerstown, an alternate retail universe where late-shift workers stroll casually down grocery aisles filling their shopping carts, bored teenagers play catch in the toy section and tired relatives go on midnight missions for the item that can't wait until morning - Solarcaine for a wife's stinging sunburn, milk for crying cousins.

"We're actually fairly steady until 2, 3 o'clock (a.m.)," Hagerstown Wal-Mart co-manager Steve Stanton said. "We've got a lot of warehouses, trucking and distribution companies (in Hagerstown), so there's going to be a lot of people who work nontraditional hours who come and shop at night."

On weeknights, business slows for a short time around 4 a.m., when most of the shift workers have gone home, before picking up again with early-morning shoppers making runs before work, Stanton said.

Still, the "steady" traffic through the one or two open checkout lanes and three self-checkout stations between midnight and 3 a.m. is nothing compared to the store's prime daylight hours, which night-time shoppers described with phrases such as "hustle-bustle" and "elbow-to-elbow."

"If you come in for one thing during the day it takes you an hour," said Joe Sisemore, 29, of Williamsport, who cruised through the checkout line with a label maker around midnight. Sisemore said he makes it a point to do his shopping after he gets off work at 11 p.m.

Eric and Angela Souders of Hagerstown, who work until midnight at the Citibank phone center, have been doing their grocery shopping after work twice a week at the Hagerstown Wal-Mart Supercenter since it opened in 2000.

"We like to avoid the crowds," said Angela, 47. "Even on weekends, we don't come during the day."

For some, the allure of Wal-Mart is simple.

"It's the only thing that's open in Hagerstown, everything's cheap and you can walk in in your pajamas," said Justin Forsythe, 20, of Hagerstown, as he walked out shortly after midnight in blue plaid pajama pants, carrying a bag of odds and ends including cups and a movie.

"You can get away with a lot," said Tina Jenkins, 19, of Hancock, as she wheeled herself around the store's lobby in a borrowed - and unnecessary - wheelchair.

There's no purchase necessary for a good time at the store, said former employees Blake Davis, 17, and Kent Hendershot, 19, of Hagerstown, who said they were there just "to goof off."

Jake Gembe and Mat Cannady, 17-year-olds from Waynesboro, Pa., amused themselves in the aisles with a Skip It toy, and Jenkins said she and her friends tempt store intervention by bouncing balls, riding bicycles and hanging out in the aisles.

"We come to Wal-Mart to get kicked out," she said.

"As long as they're not causing a problem, that's not a concern for us," Stanton said of the youthful shoppers. "People are welcome to just come in and look around."

Loiterers and slow spells notwithstanding, staying open 24 hours has advantages for the world's largest retailer, Stanton said.

"From our standpoint, the way our business works, we have to have people restocking the shelves anyway," he said.

It's not a new idea, said Denny Hopkins, president of advertising for Martin's Food Market, which has been operating 24 hours for more than 20 years and joins convenience stores and several fast-food restaurants to make up Wal-Mart's late-night competition.

"When we decided to go 24 hours ... the goal that we had was to have the consumer always think of Martin's as convenient, so that when something occurred, whether it was overnight or not, they'd say 'Let's go to Martin's,'" Hopkins said.

So why aren't more area stores open all night?

"It's clearly a cost-benefit analysis," said Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

Stores weigh late-night sales and the value of the convenience image against the cost of staying open, which includes paying employees, keeping the lights on and keeping it warm or cool, Poffenberger said.

For the majority of local businesses, that means closing at night, but a look around Wal-Mart at 2 a.m. convinced Linda Hebb, 48, of Frederick, Md., that not everyone sleeps at night.

"I think it's changed the lifestyle a lot," said Hebb, who works a night shift as a detention center nurse and said she was surprised to see toddlers running around the store when she stopped on her way home from work. "While it helps in some aspects, it makes it so we don't keep a regular schedule."

Overall, Hebb decided, "I think it improved it. Say, if I need Tylenol or if my shampoo runs out or if I need a gallon of milk."

Or if the clock is ticking down to a camping trip, as in the case of Rock and Wilson - who made it out of the store around 2 a.m. with a full cart and a good six hours to spare.

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