Walmart damps buzz over pitch for stores as 'town centers'

Walmart Inc.'s proposal to turn its parking lots and adjacent acreage into "town centers" replete with restaurants, shops, walking trails and even housing is only in the exploratory stage, a spokesman for the retailer said.

A new website, Walmart Reimagined, features conceptual renderings that depict what some of these projects may entail, including food trucks and food halls, plazas, entertainment venues and green spaces. Six locations, including a Walmart supercenter in Rogers, are listed, but these are only meant to illustrate possibilities, not to indicate actual projects, Walmart spokesman Delia Garcia said.

The website was viewable by the public until Thursday, when the company made it password-protected.

The town center concept was introduced on Oct. 23 by L.B. Johnson, vice president of Walmart's U.S. realty operations, at a retail conference in Atlanta. Since then, metro business journals and national news outlets have breathlessly reported the idea as a done deal that Business Insider says "could redefine the one-stop shop."

But the excitement is premature, Garcia said. Johnson "was talking to a very specific audience of real estate developers, and the intention was to generate and inspire some creativity and some different thinking in how they might approach Walmart," she said.

Only one of the projects listed on Walmart Reimagined is actually scheduled for development, Garcia said. The Bentonville retailer expects to break ground on a development in Loveland, Colo., in late 2019.

Walmart currently is considering projects in Springfield and Lee's Summit, Mo.; Windsor Heights, Iowa; Gresham, Ore.; and Long Beach, Calif., Garcia said. She added a caveat, however, that "these are communities where we see potential for a Reimagined Walmart project."

"With the exception of Loveland," she said, "we don't have a timeline for any individual project and invite interested developers to share their ideas for how we might partner to reimagine Walmart and bring the Walmart Town Center concept to these communities."

Many Walmart stores already have lots available for development, Garcia said. She gave as an example a location of Hat Creek Burger Co., a restaurant chain based in Austin, Texas, that recently opened outside a supercenter in Temple, Texas. Garcia said Hat Creek fits the vision the retailer has for its town centers because it's unique and local, "an up-and-comer that has a fresh approach."

"Again, it's all conceptual, and depends on identifying the right developers and having communities that are open and support that kind of innovative approach," Garcia said.

Walmart has said this year that it's planning fewer new stores in the U.S., but will focus instead on making changes to enhance customers' experience at existing stores. Walmart Reimagined "does fall in line with the idea that Walmart wants to take advantage of all the space it owns," said Laura Kennedy, a retail analyst with Kantar Consulting.

Kennedy noted Walmart also has said it wants to better communicate its role in communities, "both as a community hub and in terms of things like supporting storm relief efforts." She said she's not sure if Walmart Reimagined is the best way to achieve those goals, "especially since these developments start to sound a lot like malls. But in general, it does reflect Walmart's overall goal and necessity to get more out of its existing assets."

Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant and president of Spieckerman Retail, said with slower store growth, it's critical that Walmart get more productivity out of existing stores and take "full advantage of the opportunity to engage shoppers in brick and mortar, with connectivity to digital."

"Walmart Reimagined can serve as an incubator for concepts that will make this happen," Spieckerman said. "Walmart isn't taking a wait-and-see approach, and has become quite adept at juggling multiple projects, even as it integrates ongoing acquisitions," such as new brands Eloquii and Bare Necessities and Indian online marketplace Flipkart.

"The question isn't whether Walmart Reimagined overloads the system," she said. "It's 'what's next?'"

Business on 11/02/2018

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