May 14, 2004

Visiting a Neighborhood Market

A lot of people have never been to a Wal-Mart. But It seems to me that very few people have even seen a Neighborhood Market. That's probably because there aren't all that many of these stores around. Yet.

In Overland Park, KS, less than two miles up the road from a regular Wal-Mart is a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. (And less than two miles up from that one is yet another. I didn't drive any further to see if there was another, but the Wal-Mart-o-graph of the area indicates not.

I was on my way to the Super Target to pick up some snacks when I remembered these were nearby, so I decided to take a look. I've written a little about these stores before on the old blog, and I wanted to go back and confirm my impressions and find out a bit more.

From the outside, the stores are quite attractive, very much unlike the normal giant blue and gray battleships. They're smaller, lower buildings (by suburban grocery store standards). They have a red-brick facade, and big windows with awning over them, and a lit green sign. It is about the size and external appearance of a Whole Foods Market. (There was a Whole Foods Market across the street from one of them.) The parking lots looked small as well, not much bigger than the store. Pretty much, it looks absolutely nothing like a Wal-Mart. I'm guessing it's about half the square footage of a regular Wal-Mart, maybe less. (I'm guessing around 35,000 or 40,000 square feet, vs around 100,000 for a regular Wal-Mart, and about 60,000 for a big suburban supermarket.)

On the inside, again, it looks nothing like a Wal-Mart. The shelving and aisles and layout are like a regular grocery store: lower shelves, no clutter in the aisles. Good. The lighting and decor is softer and nicer than in a normal grocery store. I think it's largely because of ceiling and floor. The ceiling is a slight bit lower than in a typical strip retail store, and while it exposes all the beams, pipes, and cabling, everything is painted a dark bluish gray. The floor is a smooth-polished brown concrete, pretty nice (and pretty easy to clean). I think this softens the light compared with the usual white ceiling and white floor tile.

The selection of items is of course a bit smaller than in a full-size grocery, but it's still pretty good. I think it's a bit better than it was at the SuperCenter in Carson City, NV, but that may be just because in the more intimate environment, a smaller selection seems fine. (When I complain about a smaller selection, by the way, I'm judging against the standard of the ridiculous: For example, they carried Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos, but not the Mini Mint Milanos; they carried Coke, but only in two-liters, 6x24 oz bottles, and 12-packs of cans, but not 8 oz glass bottles or 6-packs of cans or three-liter bottles.)

This is just a nice place to shop. With the Wal-Mart pricing, about the only reason to go to a Kroger or Safeway would be for a better fruit, vegetable, meats, and other fresh items selection. (Even then, the Neighborhood Market has sufficient of the basics that it would have to be "Signature" or "Flagship" competitor to make it worthwhile.)

I believed that the Wal-Mart's greatest weakness was the shoddiness of its shopping experience, and that a clever competitor could engage and defeat it by being a nicer, more comfortable place to shop.

But if Wal-Mart learns anything about style from building and running these Neighborhood Market stores, and if they take the lessons and apply them to their regular stores, Target and the grocery stores had better look out.

Posted by gkanapathy at 11:07 PM