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THOUSANDS THRONG TO SEE IF BIGGER IS BETTER

May 5, 2001 – Bright orange shopping carts piled high with everything from pork chops to printers, cantaloupes to calculators, not to mention stuffed lions, fresh-baked bread, tennis balls, lawn chairs, frozen waffles and the ubiquitous 8-pack of name-brand paper towels…
Such was the scene Friday as more than 2,000 mostly smiling shoppers wheeled tons of conspicuous consumables out PriceSmart's front doors on the St. Thomas megamarket's opening day.
"We got here about 9:15, and just waited," 11-year St. Thomas resident Charlene Christopher said. "It got crowded, but the crowd was patient. When they opened the doors about five minutes before 10, everybody applauded, like the movies. The employees were clapping, too."
Pulling a package of fresh Italian sausages from her cart, which was on the brink of spilling over, she exclaimed, "Look at the price [$4.02] for all these. And the produce — just look at it!"
Indeed, the produce counters were mountains of color — including, but far from limited to, California avocados, watermelon, apples, oranges, sweet potatoes, green and red bell peppers, onions, ginger, tania, grapes and melons.
"I think the Tropicana orange juice is probably a little higher priced, so you have to watch," Christopher cautioned.
No matter.
Wandering around the fully stocked acreage is like landing in Lionel Roberts Stadium if it had a dome and finding the stands brimming with peanuts, popcorn, Crackerjacks and candied apples; hats, caps, pennants and autographed baseballs; cornflakes, video games, sneakers, frozen pizza, muffler assemblies and 14-pound legs of lamb. It's all there, more than enough to boggle the mind.
Probably the best way to approach PriceSmart, initially, is to abandon purposeful shopping. Eat something before you go, and then just stroll aimlessly. Postpone the actual shopping for another, better-educated excursion. In fact, forget eating first. Have a churro, a Bavarian cream-filled caloric calamity that's grooved sort of like galvanize, although that's where the resemblance ends. And just try ignoring the aroma of the rotisserie chicken and ribs smartly marketed in the center of the store.
Don't be enticed into bulk buying — no need to get six cans of asparagus when all you want is one. There are two-packs of 6 oz. insect-repellant spray for $6.95 — or, at least there were around noon Friday. And two pounds of frozen cooked, peeled shrimp for $9.99. And a tiramisu cake for $6.45. And, for those determined to buy in bulk, 36 rolls of toilet paper for $11.79.
One nicely dressed young man eyed the fresh "express" bin, filled with prepackaged meals. Pondering an apple-stuffed pork chop dinner for $3.89, he commented, "Wow, this is great for a single guy! Even if I could cook!"
The 45,000-square-foot facility is strategically located across from Fort Mylner just a hop and a skip from its competitors — Cost-U-Less, Kmart, Plaza Extra, Office Max, Western Auto and the mid-island Pueblo. The cavernous space is clean, and the numerous employees appear well-trained, all making a concerted effort to please. "Here, have a free travel pillow with anything you buy from this counter," one worker said.
PriceSmart executives were bounding about Friday, price checking and trouble shooting. Gilbert Partida, corporate president and CEO, seemed remarkably calm, attuned to aides while keeping an eye on not-quite-chaotic lines of customers flowing through the checkout lanes.
"It's wonderful how it's all come together," he said. "Three weeks ago, this was an empty shell, no merchandise. Everybody has worked hard."
Partida came from the company's corporate headquarters in San Diego, Calif., to witness the St. Thomas opening. The store has 170 employees now, he said, all but a couple of them hired locally. "It's our goal in about a year to have 100 percent local employees," he said.
In addition to the 170, the company brought in about 25 employees from other regional PriceSmart locations — Aruba, Barbados, Trinidad and Panama — to oversee the opening.
To shop at PriceSmart, you have to become a member. Memberships are usually $24 a year, but there's a $12 opening special at the moment. Partida said the store has already signed on about 10,000 members — representing about 13,000 shoppers, since a card in a business name can be used by more than one shopper.

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