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BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- I must say I'm impressed. After many false starts, Walmart -- the world's largest retailer -- finally appears to have gotten it right when it comes to operating a convenience store.
Walmart to Go is the retailer's newest attempt to crack into the c-store business. Located on a busy intersection near the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. corporate office in Bentonville, Walmart to Go, which we visited the day before its official grand opening, is sharp-looking, well-merchandised and looks like a real convenience store -- not some kind of hybrid or smaller version of the retailer's giant Walmart Supercenters.
With a forecourt featuring six gasoline dispensers (with the company's own gas priced competitively at $3.25 per gallon), Walmart to Go is a match regarding product mix and pricing for most modern convenience stores. The store even features a strong foodservice operation run by a local company, Bentonville Butcher Shop & Deli. Its offerings include made-to-order gourmet sandwiches, chicken pot pie, traditional side salads and a variety of other meat dishes like hot barbecue brisket, ribs and smoked chicken.
The left side of the store is set up like a typical convenience store with salty snacks, cookies, candy, snack cakes, bread and other dry grocery products. The store also features a robust (for a c-store) selection of automotive products and health and beauty care items.
On the left side and back walls is the cold vault, which features a walk-in cooler, and sells cold beer, frozen foods, soft drinks and dairy products.
Upon entering the store, customers face a large central checkout counter, with registers on two sides and assorted checkstand products merchandised along all four sides. The Bentonville Butcher Shop & Deli counter is directly behind this checkout area and to the right are the store's grab-and-go food and beverage offerings, including fountain drinks, a f'real milkshake mixer, an ICEE dispenser, and a floor cooler holding grab-and-go salads, heroes and take-home meals ready to heat. These refrigerated to-go meals include many different varieties of pizza.
This side of the store also features a coffee bar, which consists of six varieties of coffee and a cappuccino machine, selling a 12-ounce cup for 98 cents; a 16-ounce for $1.18; and a 20-ounce for $1.28.
A display case of Krispy Kreme doughnuts is also spotlighted along the right side wall next to the coffee bar. The store offers an ATM and provides free Wi-Fi. Customers may also go online before visiting the store and place their order at the Bentonville Butcher Shop & Deli via a new mobile app.
The store includes a picnic area outdoors as well as counter space for indoor seating near one of the front windows.
Walmart has tested several small box concepts over the years, the most recent being its Marketside by Walmart concept in Arizona. The only Walmart "small-box" concept that has seen any major expansion is the company's Neighborhood Market concept, which at 40,000 square feet, is hardly small compared to the typical 2,500 to 4,000-square-foot c-store.
In the past, company management has always found it difficult to invest in growing smaller concepts like Marketside when it could generate so much more revenue and profits from a single 150,000-square-foot supercenter. Now, however, Walmart management finally appears resigned to the fact that its large store format has just about saturated the nation and that the company's future depends on the development of a viable small-box concept.
However, the multibillion-dollar retailer would have to quickly open thousands of Walmart to Go stores to make an impact on its bottom line. This would entail a massive store opening blitz or, more likely, a major acquisition of an existing small box or c-store retailer.
It remains to be seen if company leaders will make the investment necessary to grow this concept. But this time, they seem to have a concept that works.