By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Close to 200 people lined up in chilly, breezy weather this morning to see what Havre's newest retail store has to offer.
The crowd stretched from the doors of Bi-Mart at the Holiday Village Shopping Center for more than 100 feet, spilling onto the store's northeast parking lot, waiting for the ribbon cutting and grand opening at 9 a.m.
People continued to arrive as the line moved into the store, which has waived its $5 lifetime family membership requirement through Oct. 29 during the grand opening.
Ron Beatty of Havre said he's already bought his membership. He was loading his purchases into his pickup before 9:10 a.m.
"It was real nice," he said. "I had what I wanted picked out. They had a real good selection, brand name items and stuff."
Bi-Mart's opening makes Holiday Village nearly nine-tenths full. Until the recent opening of Big R and the grand opening of Bi-Mart today, two of the shopping center's three ground-floor anchor spots have been vacant for several years.
Generally, the customers filling the store - it gave away tickets for 500 free Montana State University-Northern caps in 15 minutes - seemed pleased with what they saw.
Delilah Murphy, who works at the Early Head Start program at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, said the store didn't have two of the things staffers were looking for.
"We were looking for baby formula and baby food, and didn't find it," she said.
But her group was generally pleased with the selection, she said.
"I think they've got competitive prices. You just have to know how to compare and shop," she said. "Their electronics and furniture are awesome."
The store employs about 60 people, all of whom were scheduled to work today. They were joined by about 18 people from other Bi-Mart stores and by representatives of Bi-Mart corporate management. Local storekeepers and representatives of the Havre Area Chamber of Commer and city and county governments joined them at the ribbon cutting.
The new store is Bi-Mart's first location in Montana. John Harris, a Bi-Mart senior vice president, said the company is looking to expand to other Montana locations.
"We're talking to and looking at four or five towns next year to open in Montana," he said.
So far 14 Havre businesses - 11 at Holiday Village and three others - have made agreements to provide discounts to shoppers who have Bi-Mart membership cards.
Don Leber, spokesman for Bi-Mart, said the company expects to expand that to 30 businesses or more, and is negotiating with Montana State University-Northern so that its customers receive discounts at some university events by presenting their card.
Trish Taylor of Havre said she was impressed with the store's selection, lighting and signing.
"But it's too crowded," she added.
Leber said several thousand people generally come to the grand opening of new Bi-Mart stores.
Taylor said she is pleased about the competition for customers in the community.
"It's really nice to see this come to Havre. It will really bring some stimulation to buying," Taylor said.
The opening of Bi-Mart makes the shopping center about 89 percent full, up from about 58 percent in February.
Holiday Village dropped to its lowest point after the JC Penney Co. store closed in 1998, leaving Herberger's as the shopping center's only anchor store. The southwestern anchor first emptied when Woolworth's closed several years earlier. A Gibsons store took its place but closed about a year before Penney's did. Several other smaller businesses also closed or left the shopping center.
Milk River Archery signed a lease for part of the basement of the old Woolworth's spot in 2002. Whalen Tire filled the rest of the basement in March of this year, and Big R Supply moved to fill the ground floor of the spot this fall.
Bi-Mart opened its first store in Yakima, Wash., in 1955. The Havre store, the chain's 64th, is its first outside of Washington and Oregon.
The company initially used the membership process to offer special deals to its customers. At the time, fair trade laws otherwise required companies to sell merchandise at or above the manufacturers' suggested retail price.
Fair trade laws were eliminated by 1975, but Bi-Mart continues to use the membership system, both to continue with tradition and to provide additional advantages to its customers, Leber has said in previous interviews.
Merrill Lundman of Havre said he saw some items in Bi-Mart that are cheaper at other stores, but that he was impressed with other prices. He wanted, among other items, flannel shirts.
"I've got enough shirts for 10 years," he said, pointing at his shopping cart.
"I'm a happy camper," Lundman said after he checked out.