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Hustling to open

On some aisles, empty wooden pallets were a sign of relief _ the shelves were stocked.

On others, stacks of full cardboard boxes meant the opposite. There, workers sliced open boxes, put items on shelves, donned gloves and stocked freezers and hung bicycles and clothes on racks.

A Wal-Mart Supercenter opens Jan. 26 at 3501 34th St. S. It is the first supercenter in St. Petersburg. Before customers are allowed in, products probably totaling more than a million in number will be shelved, placed in displays or stored.

Wal-Mart officials received the store from the builders on Dec. 6. It is 208,000 square feet, slightly smaller than the supercenter in Pinellas Park that opened in 2001. But empty, it looked like an airplane hangar.

"It was almost overwhelming, knowing what we were going to have to do," said Mike Musumeche, store manager. This is his first store opening, although he has been with Wal-Mart for 21 years.

"We walked in and the only thing on the floor were the freezers and the coolers. On the first day, we got there at 6 a.m. and by 6:30 or 7 that night, we had every rack up, all the counters. We didn't have all the shelves in. It was a serious feeling of accomplishment that first day."

It took 84 people to do that one day's job and involved 3,000 4-foot display sections.

Early last week, some parts of the store looked finished while others were piled with boxes. Spring clothing in bright pinks and greens was hung up, but produce racks were empty. They won't be filled until the last minute. (Since this Wal-Mart was not open for Christmas, the crews don't have to contend with leftover holiday items.)

Employees were working out of position. Carol Curtis was hired to manage the delicatessen. Since none of her stock was in yet, she was shelving in the impulse department near the checkout counters. Items on those shelves are things, such as candy, that a buyer might pick up while waiting in line. Or it could be items hawked on infomercials, such as a Chia pet, ceramics with plants growing all through them.

Although Curtis has been in retail and food service for many years, she just started with Wal-Mart.

"I've watched it grow and learned where everything in the store is. When we came in Dec. 6, this was a hollow shell. I was overwhelmed. I said, "This is never going to happen,' " Curtis said. She is changing her mind.

Musumeche said trucks arrive daily from Wal-Mart warehouses, each carrying a mixture of items.

"We want a little bit of everything. We don't want to overwhelm one area," he said.

A Wal-Mart supercenter has between 85,000 and 88,000 different items. Each item has multiples. For example, the store might feature Flex shampoo with 10 bottles of the strawberry scented version. That is recorded as one item but it is 10 pieces that must be shelved.

Five Wal-Mart store planners who do nothing but open stores were directing the stocking last week. They work according to blueprints that include items that are proven sellers and items that are specialties for certain communities. Musumeche said Wal-Mart surveys communities when it comes in to find out what the specialties are.

Each 4-foot section of shelf has a sheet taped to it describing what is supposed to go there. Stockers do what is called facing out, putting up only one row of products at the front of a shelf.

After a check by a supervisor to make sure they have the right item on the right shelf, stockers fill shelves all the way to the back.

The store has 600 employees, 100 of whom are transfers from other Wal-Marts and 500 who are new. Many have been hired from the area around the store, Musumeche said. As the shelves are being stocked, Wal-Mart is running two sessions of employee orientation each day. About 35 percent of the workforce is part time. Salaries are "well above minimum wage," he said, adding that there is a scale that gives workers credit toward higher pay for their retail experience.

New workers do part of their training by computer, starting with general Wal-Mart information and then getting down to the specialty of the particular worker.

One of the harder things is getting new people familiar with retail store lingo, said Musumeche.

"They don't know that an end cap is the end piece of a gondola (display). We have to teach them from baby steps. Every day we've got 60 new people starting from scratch."

End caps are shelves at the end of an aisle. While shelves on an aisle face each other, end caps face out to the travel aisles. They are important, Musumeche said, because that is where Wal-Mart places its hot items.

Kevin Mulholland, who is in charge of merchandise and is one of two co-managers at the new store, worked the opening of the Pinellas Park supercenter. His new store may be smaller than the Pinellas Park one, but it could easily hold all 150,000 square feet of Tropicana's playing field.

Mulholland said he wore a pedometer just to see how much walking he was doing during the Pinellas Park opening.

"Monday through Thursday, it was 11 miles a day. On weekends, it was 15 to 16 miles per day. If you want to march, this is the place to do it."