Wal-Mart has finally stumbled on an easy way to create superstores. The traditional approach by the retailer is to either break down walls at an existing discount store, or to find a new location down the road, and abandon the discount store site for the larger superstore parcel. This provokes community oppositoin, because the discount stores are huge to begin with, and the new sites are even bigger, and often surrounded by unhappy neighbors. So its news this week that Wal-Mart is taking three existing discount store in the Milwaukee area, and renovating them into superstores, without touching the footprint of the store. According to the Milwaukee Journal, the grocery offerings at these stores will be greatly expanded to include fresh meat, produce and other new items. The three stores are at 401 E. Capitol Drive; 5825 W. Hope Ave., in Midtown Center; and 8700 N. Servite Drive, near the southwest corner of W. Brown Deer Road and N. 76th St. The Journal says that the existing stores will not be converted into supercenters, but will simply contain a stronger emphasis on the grocery section of the store. In addition, Wal-Mart claims that around 100 new workers will be added to the 200 existing employees at each location. The retailer will also ‘freshen’ up the store’s interior, give it more efficient lighting, refrigerator and displays, typical of what any company would do to update a store’s interior. Wal-Mart says this ‘renovation’ of stores will take around nine months to complete. The key here is that by taking this route, Wal-Mart will not have to face angry neighbors, will not have to go through lengthy site plan review and zoning permit hearings, will not waste an average of 30 acres, and will not risk losing the whole project due to adverse public response. As the Journal pointed out in an understatement, “Wal-Mart has run into opposition in some communities when it’s tried to build Supercenters.” These ‘new’ stores in Milwaukee are supercenters — they just avoid the mess and expense of a protracted community battle.
From their perspective, Wal-Mart added the most important reason for this new policy: the bottom line. A Wal-Mart spokesman said renovating the stores without expanding their size helps control costs for the company. These three stores were all built in 2001 and 2002, so they still have a useful structural life, and they are around 130,000 s.f. to 158,000 s.f., so they all have enough size to become a supercenter without expanding. Wal-Mart currently builds a superstore that is only 99,000 s.f., so these Milwaukee stores have plenty of internal room for change. By contrast, Wal-Mart has a discount store in Milwaukee on 27th street that is having a 71,000 s.f. addition nailed on, to bring the store up to 207,100 s.f. — far larger and wasteful than the other stores being planned. This “new” approach by Wal-Mart will save many communities from having a knock-down fight, and will save many stores from being left as ‘ghost boxes.’ Wal-Mart’s traditional growth pattern has forced many communities to respond to the hopscotch pattern of opening and shutting stores. Readers who have a Wal-Mart in their community are urged to email this article to the members of your local city council with this note: “When Wal-Mart comes to town looking to expand its existing store, or replace it with a supercenter, let’s remind them of what they did in Milwaukee, so that no footprint expansion is needed.”