Walmart reimagines its big boxes as town centers

Discussion
Source: Walmart, Massa Multimedia Architecture, PC
Nov 02, 2018
Matthew Stern

Walmart has made a lot of upgrades in recent years that appear to reach beyond its traditional shopper base including a spate of Millennial-targeted acquisitions and a focus on augmented reality and technology incubation. Now, the chain has plans to revamp how some of its physical stores fit within their local shopping ecosystem. Walmart has begun to reimagine some of its stores and their surrounding real estate as “town centers.”

Walmart reimagines its big boxes as town centers
Source: Walmart, Massa Multimedia Architecture, PC

The prospective Walmart Town Centers will feature outdoor spaces, entertainment areas, local food vendors and health and fitness services, according to The Dallas Morning News. The retailer is now looking to partner with developers local to the prospective sites for the projects, which will be constructed with open access and community areas in mind. 

A website — “Walmart Reimagined” — features a list of the eight different sites in eight different states that have been “reimagined” thus far. Individual location pages show concept images (not actual architectural renderings) of the layout for each store site with rudimentary information on plans for implementation and amenities to be added.

While only in the preliminary stages, the reimagining looks to be a significant departure from traditional shopping centers built around Walmart’s big box stores. More immediately, Walmart is planning store site upgrades in and around its traditional format 100,000+ square foot store locations, rather than focusing on small urban concepts such as those being developed by Target and others.

Walmart reimagines its big boxes as town centers
Source: Walmart, Massa Multimedia Architecture, PC

While the planned redesign of areas around Walmart’s big boxes is in keeping with its other moves toward Millennial-oriented branding, they are also in line with the movement toward walkable suburbs. A report earlier this year indicated that urban expats relocated to the suburbs are seeking city-like amenities. This has led to the creation of mixed-use developments meant to meet the needs of suburban pedestrians. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:  Is rethinking and redesigning locations as town centers a good move for the future of the Walmart? Are there any practical hurdles Walmart might face in attempting to execute its town center vision?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"The key is using adaptive pieces and experimenting religiously."
"This is an awesome move. Today’s consumer is looking for and loving experiences. This plays right into their wants."
"It’s worth mentioning that Ron Johnson wanted to do this same “town center” idea for J.C. Penney three or four years ago. A wink to all you RJ haters out there."

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26 Comments on "Walmart reimagines its big boxes as town centers"


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Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

What’s old can be new again. It’s all about creating relevancy that resonates with today’s shoppers. Build value and experiences beyond products and they not only come, they will come back again.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

This is a brilliant move by Walmart, especially as brick-and-mortar retail remains as significant as ever. The Apple model of rebranding their stores as “town centers” and bringing Main Street to a shopping center near you has paid dividends. Consumers have clearly expressed that they have and always will enjoy the in-store experiences of connecting with their community, the brands and building relationships with the store and their associates.

Walmart has done an outstanding job of building a large portfolio of digital native innovative brands yet, up to this point, their big box stores didn’t necessarily reflect a strategic shift to a more experiential model. By transforming their real estate to a more town center like experience, Walmart will absolutely extend their reach well beyond the typical big box consumer.

Dave Nixon
BrainTrust

This concept could work for the new demographic that Walmart seems to be targeting with their digital transformation. The key to success on any level will be the laser focus on location, supporting activities and experience that is designed for a specific targeted demographic. If they try to make this concept fly as a “one format to appease them all” it will likely fail. My fear is that this is such a dramatic shift in their traditional retail model that the core shopper may not adapt fast enough to make this successful. I have personally lived through the process of a concept like this in my previous life and the pivot was so great that the core customer or the new shopper “got it” as they tried to appeal to two different demographics in one concept.

Joanna Rutter
BrainTrust
1 month 16 days ago

I agree Dave, one format pasted onto every store won’t be as successful as adaptive concepts that reflect the customer. And making sure their core shopper is delighted by new amenities or spaces (vs. feeling whiplashed and betrayed) is key.

Jeff Sward
Guest

I love this idea for both Walmart and the consumer. I come back to Explore + Experiment = Experience. Walmart is creating an Ex + Ex environment beyond a simple shopping trip. They are multiplying the reasons to park at Walmart vs. the local mall, or Target or Kohl’s. Sears could have explored this idea, even in a mall anchor role, but obviously never went down this path. Walmart is clearly putting themselves in a leadership role in evolving retail.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

As long as all the stores are not Walmart stores then sure, it’ll be helpful to start putting towns back together again. Those are the towns Walmart originally toasted with its presence, and it’s good to help put things back in order.

The 100,000 square foot store size is worrisome, though. I mean, how are these local merchants going to compete with the 1,000 pound gorilla. It could end up a lot of food courts, and that would be boring.

Still, it’s another example of retailers trying to re-integrate with their surroundings, rather than be monolithic fortresses with no windows.

Joanna Rutter
BrainTrust
1 month 16 days ago

Why not? With inexpensive, modular pieces (picnic tables and string lights, kiosks, etc.) and rigorous testing, I bet Walmart is uniquely positioned to strike some sort of customer sweet spot, especially in more rural areas where options for community gathering in a third place may be more limited. The key is using adaptive pieces and experimenting religiously.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

So food trucks instead of food courts – otherwise, what makes Walmart think this is a destination idea? And walkable suburbs will take decades to develop, so it hardly fits in with that idea.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This makes a lot of sense and, once again, shows that Walmart is firmly on the front foot when it comes to evolving its business model. While big box stores still have a place, changes in the way we shop mean we’re often looking for more experiential, smaller-footprint destinations with a range of different attractions, services and facilities. This fits that bill.

Obviously, it is a very different model from traditional Walmart stores and the economics are likely to be different, so it will be interesting to see how far and how fast Walmart rolls this out.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

While this strategy aligns with what I believe will be the very near future of retail, I do wonder if the typical Walmart customer is the ideal target for this town center concept. I have not seen evidence that the Moosejaw and Bonobos acquisitions have significantly moved the needle in changing their customer base, and without those Millennials, I am not sure this strategy will succeed. I think traditional malls that are converting to the town center model have a head start on Walmart in attracting the coveted Millennials, and I am not sure Walmart can make up that ground quickly enough to make this approach a success for them.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
This will certainly require careful evaluation of real estate to be successful. Not every Walmart Supercenter location will be a fit for this. However, I applaud Walmart for rethinking retail in an innovative way to attract a different customer than their core base. It’s a bold move and frankly puts them in competition with many malls trying to do the very same thing. Walmart will need to study each location carefully and determine what appeals uniquely to each population — it will not be the same everywhere. I would also be curious what branding Walmart chooses to apply as I don’t think we can say their digital transformation by buying brands that appeal to Millennials has yet proven to resonate with that audience or change their perceptions of Walmart as a shopping destination. This reimagining could have an impact on that perception if the right locations are chosen. In fact, not too long ago, Walmart proposed something similar at a mall location near me that closed. The local government and adjacent population did not go… Read more »
Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

The Walmart of the past few years is a reinvigorated company with a zeal for reimagining retailing and by extension they are addressing how people make meaning in their daily activities and how they identify with brands. The physical space is more than simply a location where things happen, it becomes more purposeful and integrated in a lifestyle way with fully engaged sensory experience.

By rethinking their store location as town centers, Walmart takes more control of the variables that help create the desired customer experience — going beyond the traditional product/price/checkout continuum. This is a big idea with significant consequences for the future of retailing outside of an urban setting. Real estate, ease and convenience as well as pleasant aesthetics will come together as we explore retail’s future model that integrates space, time, and intelligent technologies in new and innovative ways — and all catering to delivering a compelling customer experience.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

This is a great move by Walmart to shift their store positioning to become more community focused. The key to maximizing the big box store is to fit it in well with the local community. This will require a dynamic positioning for many communities, since we often find communities which are in transition around large retail areas. Walmart will need to do its homework when it “reimagines” positioning their stores as town centers, and keep the location flexible for future changes as the local community shifts.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

I give Walmart credit for literally thinking outside its traditional box. This move has the potential to bring in new customers and partners in the planned town centers. While Walmart Supercenters provided the original one-stop shopping experience, this planned approach goes beyond its offering of a wide variety of goods and services within its stores. This model would position Walmart as a retail destination with a variety of complimentary tenants. I also like the idea of incorporating restaurants, food halls, and food trucks; making it a more like a town square where consumers could gather for a meal, community event or some shopping.

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust
This is a major move by Walmart to utilize its big box sites for modern shopping requirements and should be applauded. Shoppers today are looking for more individual, interesting and entertaining shopping experiences rather than just one massive retail offering. Given the developments of the Walmart online business where they are becoming a platform for smaller more exciting retailers, is this what they are looking for to replicate in physical store locations? If so, all is well. Walmart is right on track with this idea and while it will evolve and change in content, this is certainly the first truly imaginative move from the big box operators. Well done and I will watch with interest to see how it develops. We also hear today that landlords are happy that Sears filing for bankruptcy may give them the opportunity to regain some space in their shopping centers to redevelop. This sounds like they are chiming from the same bell. They will have the chance to bring in some new exciting and ultimately more entertaining retail offerings… Read more »
Lee Kent
BrainTrust

This is an awesome move. Today’s consumer is looking for and loving experiences. This plays right into their wants. Whether a rural store or urban, the concept offers a fun destination, pickup locations for BOPIS, shopping, mingling, lunching, you name it. And that’s my 2 cents.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Bingo! (sorry for the old term, Millennials). Stores need to become something else and steps like these will ensure two things for Walmart and others that follow suit: they will soon find out what works and what doesn’t work and build on that going forward AND they just gave their existing customers and new ones a good reason to go back to their physical spaces for a look-see.

At this point you have to say that Walmart could be the most innovative bricks retailer, right up there with Apple. Also it is one of the few that is positioning itself to compete with Amazon for a long time to come. Love it. Competition does makes us better, doesn’t it.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Side note: it’s worth mentioning that Ron Johnson wanted to do this same “town center” idea for J.C. Penney three or four years ago. A wink to all you RJ haters out there.

Jeff Sward
Guest

I’ve often said that RJ had the right general idea for JCP. He knew it had to be about not just change, but transformation. He was slightly off about the scope and speed that would work.

I blame the Board. Coulda/shoulda been their idea. Or at least they all could have had the sense to prototype, learn, and evolve.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

The irony of Walmart, the brand small-town America fought against to preserve their downtowns, creating “town centers” is one step shy of troublesome. It’s a reimagination of their stores, which has a lot more potential for the company than their press fodder patent filings do. Done with a bonafide customer-first mindset, it can be an enjoyable/beneficial destination for shoppers. The big unknown is how it will curate tenants and what type of environment/experience that selection will create for customers. Moreover, the question remains as to what a successful Walmart town center will do to remaining Main Street shopping districts in the places they create these mini-mall scenarios.

Yeah, I can’t easily get beyond the ironic piece.

Scott Norris
Guest

Right, this just looks like a plan to wipe out all the other parts of downtown small-town America: pull the farmers’ market into the parking lot, put the community theater on the roof, run the 4th of July parade around the perimeter of the parking lot. Still means the Millennial shopper has to drive there.

Why not build affordable housing over the Supercenter? That would actually help build strong communities AND create “walkable suburbs” in one go!

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

Another big name talking about town centres…. As an idea, it makes a lot of sense. Walmart has these sites so it might as well make good use of them. Creating spaces that offer more than just an out-of-town retail experience may help encourage people to actually go to these big box stores — it’s a reason to go out and spend half a day or more somewhere. You’re going to get something nice, fun, enjoyable out of it. It’s the same sort of idea as making shopping centres places for days out. Especially if Walmart can curate the experiences so they’re tailored to the local audience rather than being the same in all the locations.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Walmart rethinking their locations is a good move and they’ll face hurdles in doing so. Opening up the locations to serve as a community hub adds significant value to coming to “the store.” Experience is the new competitive advantage and this certainly qualifies. And it’ll have the benefit of people shopping more and being more engaged with the brand. There is still some legacy image that Walmart will have to contend with; however, they’ve been going strong as of late, so no doubt they’ll have this sorted in time.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

I recently attended a GMDC-sponsored Retail Tomorrow event in Toronto and had the opportunity to view Microsoft’s Sidewalk Labs. The redesign that Walmart is envisioning aligns nicely with the initiatives I viewed. Excitement about retail occasions and experiences is giving me tremendous hope for the future.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Great move for some of its stores. This is following on Apple’s idea of creating a “Today at Apple neighborhood” which becomes more of a customer experience instead of just shopping for an item. Practical hurdles will be the cost of the physical changes to the centers, attracting partners for some of the spaces, and attracting consumers to the new format.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

We seem quite evenly split on this, and that reflects my opinion too: this could be a great opportunity for Walmart to recreate the “Main Street” atmosphere that many towns have lost (and which, of course, WM had no small part in helping kill). Or it could give them even greater control over local economies, becoming landlord — a term many would interpret literally — to the local gym, theater or day care center. Think of the Walmart Bank proposal on a larger scale.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The key is using adaptive pieces and experimenting religiously."
"This is an awesome move. Today’s consumer is looking for and loving experiences. This plays right into their wants."
"It’s worth mentioning that Ron Johnson wanted to do this same “town center” idea for J.C. Penney three or four years ago. A wink to all you RJ haters out there."

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