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Retail chains relying on homogenization

All stores’ lights, music controlled from a single site

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SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — There are no light switches at the local Best Buy. The bright fluorescent lights in the sprawling store at the Maine Mall are told by a computer in Minnesota when to turn themselves on and off.

At a nearby Wal-Mart, the in-store televisions, the music, even the thermostat are controlled from the home office in Bentonville, Ark.

And at Macy's, employees can see the lights in the parking lot not by looking out a window but instead at a computer monitor.

It's a growing trend as America becomes increasingly blanketed with national chains: Retailers are using technology to ensure a uniform shopping experience.

From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., the background melodies at every Wal-Mart are identical. Home Depot stores pipe their music in from Atlanta. The Gap shows the same videos from sea to shining sea.

The goal, in part, is to save money, but the trend has other advantages as well.

"The managers just have to think of the hiring and firing, the meeting and greeting. Everything else is taken care of," said Ken Gassman, a retail analyst for Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Va. "It's the homogenization of retail."'

Some shoppers say the automation smacks of Big Brother.

"It's creepy," said Lynda Lafond, herself a former store manager in South Portland. "If you trust me with your product, you can trust me to turn off the light switch. I would much rather have control in my own store."

Craig Libby, owner of a small cart at the Maine Mall that sells coffee mugs customized with photographs, finds the conformity and surveillance a bit unnerving.

"It's peculiar that they all have to be the same," he said.

In addition to ensuring uniformity, the technology advances provide retailers with a way to save money through reduced energy use, experts say.

None would disclose how much they save, but Dustin Mirick, manager of utilities and energy at Best Buy, said the difference in energy costs between a store with an energy system versus without a system is significant.

"It's an energy savings, which means it's cost savings," which is important for discount retailers, said Mary Lorencz, spokeswoman for Kmart Corp. in Troy, Mich. "I'm sure that most of our major competitors do this."

Shoppers looking at the big-screen TVs at Best Buy stores in Florida and Maine will see the same images. The programming is set at the corporate headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn., and beamed to the stores.

The system works using phone lines, satellites and in-store computers, which trade information with computers in Minnesota.

This "energy control center" isn't much to look at — two small, gray cubicles with computers and a phone on the desk. There Mirick and his colleague make their adjustments with a few keystrokes or the click of a mouse.

Mirick doesn't stop watching when he leaves the office. With a laptop computer, he can continue to monitor lighting and thermostats from home.

The system works well, but it sometimes has unintended consequences. In South Portland, manager Nathan Murray sometimes arrives to a dark store, so he has to manually override the lights by pressing a button in the "control closet," a tucked-away room with a tangle of wires and blinking lights.

Back in Minnesota, such actions don't go unnoticed.

Mirick can tell how often a store uses the override feature and talks with the manager if it happens too often or without explanation. "We make sure that they know the costs associated with doing that," he said.

At Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s 965 Supercenters — discount stores with large grocery sections — the company monitors temperatures in the freezer compartments.

"We're talking about a lot of product," said spokeswoman Jessica Moser. "We immediately know if the temperature is off."

In electricity-starved California this summer, an Albertson's Inc. employee at the grocery chain's state headquarters will be able to simultaneously turn off selected lights and freezer door heaters at 276 stores.

The project will temporarily reduce Albertson's power needs by 15 megawatts, said Glenn Barrett, senior energy manager. That's enough electricity to power roughly 11,000 homes. It could also help fend off rolling blackouts that could spoil food and drive away customers.

Powering down could also save the company around $150,000 a quarter through rebate programs, said Gary Gertsen, an energy management specialist working on the project.

Murray, the Best Buy manager in South Portland, admits it's a little weird when, for instance, the air conditioning blasts on for no logical reason. But he said dealing with technical or infrastructure problems is easier because he doesn't have to deal with them. He just picks up the phone and dials Minnesota.

"From a troubleshooting perspective, you just call up and say: 'This is the issue — fix it, please.'"

Contributing: Karren A. Mills, Karen Gaudette