Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said last week that his company “didn’t get where we are today by being like everyone else and driving the middle of the road.” Lee’s comments came during a speech called “Twenty-First Century Leadership,” part of what the media has called the retailer’s latest charm offensive. It is true that you won’t find Wal-Mart stores in the middle of the road — you will find them in the middle of everywhere else. In the middle of neighborhoods, in the middle of wetlands, in the middle of historically sensitive areas — everywhere they should not be. As part of Wal-Mart’s effort to recast its public image, one of the least noticed new “challenges” Lee Scott mentioned in his sweeping speech, is their new attitude towards working with communities. “Wal-Mart is likewise committed to our communities,” Scott said, “and we have a strong legacy in this area. We believe that community membership is a privilege and that we have an obligation to help sustain the communities that rely on us.” To show this commitment, Wal-Mart has come up with a new 5 point plan: 1. We will engage in a community dialogue process that will include business unit leaders from operations, realty, store design and construction. 2) We will test this process in 3 markets over the next 12 months. The goal is to improve our existing community engagement process to find mutually beneficial partnerships with the communities we serve. 3) To better understand and address local needs, we are opening local Corporate Affairs offices in many metro markets. 4) We will continue to build “stores of the community” that use locally relevant store designs and blend with local architecture. 5) We will adopt a siting and construction policy in the next 12 months that addresses environmental, social and historical considerations.” In short, Wal-Mart is finally going to adjust its “one size fits all” mentality in an effort to quiet the natives, who have been very restless these past few years. The concept of “locally relevant store designs” is an admission that for years the company has been building locally irrelevant designs, and will continue to build such stores, but simply give them, as the architects say, a different “skin.” For the past several years, Wal-Mart has been promising a “southwest feel” to stores in New Mexico, a “Bavarian feel” to stores in Michigan, an “Adirondack look” to stores in upstate New York, etc. This is the same company that told the Dallas Morning New yesterday that “We haven’t even scratched the surface of the urban cores. Think about New York, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. There are thousands of new Supercenter opportunities.” As it gets harder and harder for Wal-Mart to find 20+ acres of suitable land, the company is getting more flexible about where it is willing to build. As Rob Bray, senior vice president over U.S. new store development, told the Dallas Morning News, the company in the past would just “walk away if it couldn’t build on a site. Today, we say ‘How do we do it?’
Wal-Mart says its going to test out this new “community dialogue process” in 3 markets. They plan to build 280 superstores this coming year, so this new dialogue will take place in roughly 1% of it new store areas — hardly what Scott could describe as a “radically different” approach to building stores. The fact remains, most of what Wal-Mart will build this coming year are the biggest prototype buildings they have ever built, often in the most inappropriate location. Rob Bray reaffirmed that the hulking supercenter is still the “vehicle of choice” for Wal-Mart. It’s basically the 204,000-square-foot store with a skin that matches the feel of the geographic area. “We would build it in every city in America if we could get the land,” he said. So all this talk about a new “siting and construction policy” and “community engagement” comes down to this: Wal-Mart will be rolling out superstores every 31 hours in 2006, and just as often, community groups will complain that these stores are being shoved down their throats. Underneath the engagement rhetoric, is this basic truth right from the horses mouth: “As long as we can open Supercenters, that’s where we’ll put our resources.” Lee Scott told reporters. “Then we can expand with Neighborhood Markets,” he added. “We could be three or four times bigger in the U.S. In our five-year plan, we don’t reach saturation.” Because of its overly-aggressive saturation strategy, Wal-Mart has become the most reviled retailer in America today. This is why Wal-Mart is now promising to open up new Corporate Affairs offices in metro areas: because the company is going to need all the public relations spin it can find.