By Greg Beato
11:45 AM EDT, May 3, 2011
At a time when baby formula and dishwashing soap have become luxuries only the affluent can afford, WalMart no longer seems quite so poised to drag us kicking and shopping into a dystopian future of oppressive low pricing and big-box convenience. As more and more households with annual incomes of $50,000 to $70,000 choose to deploy their meager stockpiles of nickels and dimes at extreme-value retailers like Family Dollar and Dollar General, WalMart suffers. Same-store sales in its U.S. outlets have dropped for seven quarters in a row now.
But a weak economy isn't the only factor making WalMart look vulnerable, old-fashioned, out of touch with contemporary consumer desires. Its status as the New York Times of retail — encyclopedic in scope, committed to delivering comprehensive, in-depth shopping experiences — is a growing liability as well. In the 1990s, when millions of people were still willing and able to complete long marches through mazes of office supplies and bargain patio furniture just to get to a bucket of cheese doodles, WalMart was a shopper's paradise. It stocked 142,000 items in 195,000 square feet of space. You could literally shop for days there and never buy the same thing twice.
But who has the time for that now, the patience, the physical stamina? The average WalMart Supercenter has 800 parking spaces, but in complete disregard for its customers' convenience, it places them all outside the store, in the parking lot, hundreds of feet away from the merchandise. This set-up might appeal to marathon runners and other endurance athletes, but regular people shouldn't have to work that hard just to get a killer deal on an area rug.
Grasping this new reality, sort of, WalMart plans to build hundreds of tiny stores throughout America. Well, not tiny, exactly, but about a tenth of the size of the chain's supercenters. In Gentry, Ark., for example, a 14,400-square-foot WalMart is currently under construction — at that size, you could fit four of them inside Bill Gates' mansion and still have room to spare!
If WalMart's traditional stores are the New York Times of retail, these new pygmy WalMarts are more like Gawker or Politico — smaller, nimbler, more attuned to contemporary attention spans. While they're still a far cry from hyper-streamlined shopping platforms like Groupon, which sell only one thing at a time, they represent trouble for America's 25,000 convenience stores.
For anyone who regularly shops at such places, this is great news. Say what you will about WalMart — no one has ever accused it of stocking little more than cigarettes, candy and one sad rotting banana priced at $1. For thousands of corner markets and convenience stores, however, this is standard operating procedure.
Saturate the landscape with stripped-down WalMarts, however, and suddenly it will no longer be enough to merely offer lottery tickets and used porn in shrink-wrapped value-packs. Indeed, to imagine what sort of convenience store renaissance WalMart will likely inspire, simply consider what happened when the plague of Starbucks swept across America in the 1990s. Coffee shops that offered swill and poor service were forced out of the market. Coffee shops that were determined to compete with Starbucks' bland corporate consistency worked hard to improve the quality of their products and the ambiance of their stores.
Even if you've sworn to never set foot in a Starbucks, you pretty much have it to thank for whatever coffee it is that you do drink. The super-premium cup of Wollega Leka Wato that you get at your local purveyor of artisanal coffee experiences, the bargain Caramel Mocha that you get at McDonald's — they're both positioning themselves in opposition to Starbucks. And WalMart, if we're lucky, could have the same kind of impact on thousands of criminally complacent convenience stores and corner markets that currently operate as if every customer has the retail desires of Charles Bukowski. Let the revolution begin!