Wal-Mart’s new strategy on superstores is playing itself out in a small city in California. Willows, California has a population of less than 6,300 people. It doesn’t really need a superstore for that population baiase, but Wal-Mart thinks this tiny community needs a larger store. So in March of 2006, the retailer proposed demolishing its existing discount store on Airport Avenue, which was ‘only’ 84,000 s.f., and replacing it with a supercenter. City officials enthusiastically supported the expansion, and approved it, in what one newspaper called a “flurry of support.” That was nearly three years ago. Today, there is still no superstore in Willows, and Wal-Mart told the media that plans for a new store have been abandoned. According to the Enterprise-Record newspaper this week, Wal-Mart is not going to tear down its ‘old’ building — but expand its existing store by adding another 54,404 s.f. to the structure. The expanded store will end up being a 140,857 s.f. superstore. Wal-Mart has already presented this expansion-in-place plan to the Willows Planning Commission, which approved the user permit and design plan without a murmur. The new supercenter won’t have a tire and lube shop — but otherwise the expanded store is not different from the original stand alone superstore. Wal-Mart is using the expansion to change the ‘look’ of the store. Instead of the traditional red, white and blue box, Wal-Mart promised Willows that the new store would have “arched doorways” and “a welcoming look.” But even after this three year delay, it appears that Wal-Mart is still in no great hurry to build this expansion. The company says that it still has to submit further plans to the city, and that once it gets its building permit, actual construction might not begin for another year and a half.
One city official surmised that Wal-Mart’s change in plans from a free-standing supercenter to an expanded existing store had to do with the general economic climate. Although Wal-Mart has been much more prosperous during the recession than most retailers, the company has announced with great fanfare that it is cutting back its production of new superstores from 280 a year to 140 in coming years. The Willows decision to expand-in-place certainly makes more sense economically and environmentally than tearing down a building the size of one and a half football fields. There was also speculation that removing all that debris from the existing site may have been too expensive for Wal-Mart’s liking. Whatever the reason, the expanded store is really not needed in the first place. A small community like Willows has no need for a huge supercenter. The addition of a grocery store to the Wal-Mart is only designed to change market share in the city. Most of the existing grocery stores in Willows, like Sav Mor and Sani Food are small-time operations. It is reasonable to conclude that when Wal-Mart adds a grocery component, one or two of these existing grocery stores will close. Readers are urged to call the Mayor of Willows, James Yoder, at 530-934-7041 with the following message: “Dear Mayor Yoder, The expansion of the Wal-Mart on Airport Avenue will bring no added value to your local economy in Willows, and in fact may precipitate the closure of one or more existing grocery store. The argument over jobs and taxes really is moot, because your small community doesn’t have the population to support all this added retail capacity. You may want to add a local ordinance that requires any retail store that remains empty for more than 12 consecutive months to have a demolition bond, because you may need it when the Wal-Mart supercenter opens. Before you waste more land on this project, try asking the Wal-Mart representatives why they can’t just convert the existing building into a supercenter, without having to add on more than an acre of store to the project. Wal-Mart has 99,000 s.f. superstores. Why not consider a superstore conversion — without all these add-ons? As another Mayor once said: “It’s not how big you grow that counts. It’s how you grow big.”