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Walmart Sees Gold in Small Neighborhood Grocery Stores

Eric Justian
| Friday July 11th, 2014 | 4 Comments

walmart marketGo small or go home. That’s my motto. Or it would be if I had a motto. And it seems that’s something Walmart is embracing — to the benefit of walkable communities and of those in food deserts where lower-income people suffer limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Walmart has announced it will nearly double its number of “small format” stores in unconventional locations, adding up to 300 more units around the U.S. focused on “perishables” such as fresh fruits and vegetables and meats. One of the major factors in the format’s success is how it uses pharmacies — another benefit to communities with walkability issues — as traffic builders.

This is not to say that the stores are specifically intended to address food desert issues. Back in 2011, Walmart committed to building stores in rural and urban food deserts, but that didn’t include the smaller format stores. However, the company did say stores like Walmart Express “will likely” serve food deserts. Ultimately, though, the intent of the smaller stores is to get a foothold in dense urban centers that aren’t cut out for the huge, sprawling format. Heck, some cities like Chicago have been downright politically hostile to Walmarts within the city limits.

The new format seems to be a huge hit, already. Walmart expects to see up to $20 billion in growth each year from these wee little outlets by 2018.

I have mixed feelings about Walmart, of course. On one hand, there are the low wages and questionable labor conditions of their sources, and frankly, on the occasions I go there, I get the distinct impression they don’t give their employees the freedom to do their jobs well; they have to call a manager for every teeny weeny thing while I, the customer, wait and wait and wait and the employee apologizes and apologizes. On the other hand, Walmart is the largest private producer of solar energy in the U.S., and they do come up with ways to serve the low-wage community. In my city, the Super Walmart with a grocery section has a bus that goes out to underprivileged areas, and that’s a really important service.

When you live in a city with scant mass transit and you neither have the resources to have a car nor even know anybody with the resources to have a car, any food assistance you might get loses serious practical applications when all you have access to is food from the gas station or convenience store: overpriced bread and canned goods, potato chips, Honey Buns, and soda pop. It’s a very serious matter when the neighborhood liquor store is the only thing within walking distance and has a sign that says “We Accept Food Stamps.” There’s not going to be anything to buy there but crap.

Walmart’s foray into small urban stores with fresh foods and pharmacy access may turn out to be a huge deal for underprivileged communities, especially as it shows other retailers there’s money to be made serving them. Other stores such as Target and Whole Foods are following suit, with Whole Foods experimenting with lower-cost options for staple items.

Image credit: Walmart: Source


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  • Wayne Roberts

    I think this is a terrible trend that supporters of a triple bottom line should condemn as corporate predation and demand that governments block with an anti–monopoly case.
    WalMart has already decimated neighborhood food access by driving medium and large supermarkets out of business. Now it is mopping up on the small retailers who have maintained service on main streets. WalMart knows that the future of retail is on main streets because people are tired of driving for basic groceries.
    Dine and dash is creating an opportunity for small entrepreneurs who specialize in local places, and WalMart will crush them one at a time.
    Not with the support of greens or sustainability advocates, I hope!

    • Eric Justian

      It’s definitely a fair statement.

      On the other hand, we can look at many instances where small, local retailers aren’t filling the niche and folks without access to transportation are suffering for it.

      There are many, many neighborhoods where the only food retailers accessible to the locals are liquor stores or gas stations where all there is to be had are bagged fried foods and canned goods or bread selling for four times as much as they would at a grocery store.

      Very unhealthy options at a very high price.

      I can’t say Walmart is all good or all bad. But I can say they’re not going anywhere. So when they make a move that could benefit low income communities, I definitely applaud that.

    • Dave Shires

      I agree with Eric. I’ve never spent a dime at Walmart in my life and I don’t intend to start, but the abandonment of US cities was a complicated phenomenon for which companies like Walmart are not really to blame – if anything they just followed the trend. I blame Walmart for killing small-town downtowns, but not cities. They were never even in cities until very recently.

      Assuming there is a genuine effort to put these in walkable areas and actually provide decent food then this is a good thing.

      • TM

        I AGREE WITH WAYNE. WAL-MART LET EVERYONE SURVIVE.