Small Versions of Big Boxes


A new Walmart Express in the southeastern United States.

Many of us are familiar with the debates of new Walmart stores (other big box chains apply here, too) and the effects that such development and business will have on existing business and surrounding communities. And then there is the dollar store debate as well, such as the example in Chester, VT. Relatively new to the mainstream discussion are smaller versions of these big box stores. Previously, they’ve been smaller versions in order to fit into the urban markets, such as the Walmart Neighborhood Market and the Walmart Express. A bit of information about the two from a USA Today article:

In the U.S., Simon said, Wal-Mart’s small stores, which range from 10,000 square feet to about 55,000 square feet, compete well with a broad variety of merchants.

Neighborhood Market store have generated a 5% increase in revenue at stores open at least a year for the first half of this year. That’s more than double the growth rate of the Wal-Mart’s average store.

Express stores are less than one-tenth the size of Wal-Mart supercenters and offer groceries, general merchandise like tools, and pharmacies. Neighborhood Markets are more than twice the size of Express stores and offer perishable food, household supplies and beauty aids as well as a pharmacy.

According to another article, 40% of new Walmart openings will be these smaller scale stores.

Clearly, these Walmart Express stores sound like many dollar stores and chain pharmacies. Is this just another name to the mix of such stores? Or is this something new to which community planners, preservationists, citizens, etc. should pay attention on a different level?

Will these stores be considered for historic downtown locations, rather than sprawl? The store in the image above demonstrates that some are a part of the chain store sprawl. And design review doesn’t seem to be in effect in that example. If a Walmart Express (or any similar store) were willing to fit into an existing building block, would you be more favorable to it than if it were simply sprawl? Or do you think that would simply be empowering these big box chains, creating a monopoly, and hurting Main Street and small business owners?

What would you do in your community?


16 thoughts on “Small Versions of Big Boxes

  1. Erik says:

    Has a Walmart ever occupied a previously used downtown building? I am thinking of a few good examples of big stores meshing well in cites and smaller downtowns but Walmart was never one of them.

    At this stage in the game it’s not only the fact that so many big-box stores have been at the heart of soul-crushing sprawl, but we see how much they stifle growth of human capital and innovation in our communities. Regardless of size, these stores haven’t really led us in a better way than we were before despite the everyday low prices.

    While I agree that neighborhood appropriate models should be applied (as this is the way things “used to be” and they worked well for a reason), to let chains continue to capitalize is going to further the gap between the have’s and have-nots.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Good question. I don’t know of examples of Walmart using downtown buildings. I have seen chain pharmacies downtown, however. I like your point and agree that it’s stifling human capital and innovation – creating more of that anywhere, usa vibe.

        • Kaitlin says:

          Oh, you’re right! I recently learned that fact. Thanks for the reminder. Interesting. I wonder how often that happened. Maybe only when Walmart was still new around here?

          • Paula Sagerman says:

            Yes, things were different when Walmart first forced its way into Vermont, I believe in 1994. The first one was in Bennington, which was also in an existing building, but not downtown. I saved a photo from the American Planning Association magazine, which shows a man holding a placard in front of the store that reads, “This is stupid.”

    • afteragain says:

      In the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, we had a Walmart Express go into an old building that had been empty for a few years. The neighborhood was pretty opposed to it, not because it was changing an old building or adding to “sprawl” (it didn’t and it couldn’t), but because we didn’t want Walmart in our community at all. We’d lost enough small, independent shops. Then again, we already had Walgreens, CVS, and a chain grocery store, so was this any different? We’d already lost the fight to keep chains out…and our Alderman (city councilman) managed to get Walmart into Lakview even though almost everyone you asked was opposed.

      • Kaitlin says:

        Sometimes politics play a bigger role than we all understand. I consider Walmart different because of its massive size, but all chains do have negative effects.

  2. MainerChick says:

    I use to be a fan of Walmart, however they lost my favor when they basically leveled a wooded area & hill to put in the super size store to replace their first one across the street in my city. Then hearing how they treated their employees, the benefits or lack of, and that about a half dozen or more local retailers closed their doors when they super sized. I try to avoid them as much as possible. Maybe two to four visits a year.

    It’s too bad that smaller local retailers couldn’t pull together to get the same prices on items they order and pass it along to us. Unfortunately it would take a lot of work for such a thing.

    Although I wonder how Walmart differs from Sears & Kmart coming on to the scene back in the day. (20 plus years ago) Or how in Maine Shaws & Hannaford have been super sizing their stores.

    • Kaitlin says:

      I imagine many chains have similar stories (Walmart, Kmart, Target, Sears, etc.) Perhaps big business overtaking little business has always been the case, but now it’s more prevalent because there is so much more development and many more people?

      Grocery stores are a battle here in Vermont, too. It’s rare to have a successful “real” grocery store that meets the needs of the population and is not a chain. The big chains (Shaws, Hannaford, Price Chopper here) definitely overtake the little guys. I much prefer the locally owned stores (two good examples are markets in Richmond and Waterbury, VT).

  3. rebeccabugger says:

    The thing that I dislike about Wal-Mart is not the big chain idea or the fact that they waste our land by building up where they could have built in. (Regular people do it every day. New construction is taking over small towns while historic homes sit empty.) That is where my problem with Wal-Mart comes in. The customers. The crowd. The supersize everything mentality that our world cheers on every day. This generation has lost their respect for the past. They want everything new and now and bigger and better. Veterans halls sit empty on Military Holidays. Old buildings deteriorate as modernization takes over the past and stomps it into the ground, burying it and leaving it forgotten and without it our future is bleak. Children today don’t know where they came from and what happened to their ancestors. Big boxes could be filled with memories, useful thoughts from the past waiting to enhance our lives; and they are now instead filled with our egos.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Agreed. People encourage this development and this sprawl. Advocates for historic preservation work hard to teach other the benefits of historic buildings, the strength of communities, and a sense of place and respect.

  4. afteragain says:

    Another interesting thing is the social dynamics of who opposes/supports Walmarts in communities. In my old neighborhood in Chicago, almost everyone was against a Walmart express, but the neighborhood was populated by relatively well-off people. Some argued that Walmart would serve people who would rather save money that live in a “trendy” part of town. (Of course, then what were they doing living in one?) But it did get me thinking about the community Walmart served and if we were being selfish to insist that our neighbors pay more. I still come down on the side of keeping Walmart out, because I would pay more to keep my neighborhood special. But I recognize that means some people won’t be able to afford my community.

    • Kaitlin says:

      While Walmart often appears cheaper, and thus appeals to many and tricks us into thinking what you describe above… it isn’t always the case. Of course, some things are cheaper, but then there are items with higher prices. It lures you in with low prices, but surrounds those low prices with more expensive items and just a greater quantity. So in the end you could buy more and pay more than you would have by shopping somewhere smaller or waiting for a sale. I’ve actually compared Walmart grocery prices to a few other grocery stores based on coupons and sales, and it was close to being a wash. People would be better off shopping smart rather than relying on Walmart to tell them that its providing the lowest prices. Why should we trust a giant corporation?

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