A different kind of Walmart opened up recently here in Plano, Texas. Sporting a new, upscale look, this pilot store appears to be positioning itself to compete with the likes of Target. And, um… Super Target.
While I’d like to do nothing more than hate everything about Walmart and curse the land it is built on, I was pleasantly surprised as I walked into this particular store. Instead of my usual knee-jerk impulse to run screaming for the door and assume the fetal position, I actually found myself kinda smiling. Yeah, that’s right. Walmart at Willow Bend is not the claustrophobic’s nightmare that is every other Walmart in the world. This store sports wider aisles and a lovely stained cement floor; it is also possible to see much farther into the store from entry vantage points due to lower clothing racks and shelving. The space at eye level is significantly more open than other Walmart stores. It’s like you can actually breathe. The store was very clean, but such is to be expected at a new store; it will be interesting to see whether or not the cleanliness degrades over time or if the store will rigidly maintain its immaculate condition. Given the wealthy neighborhoods it borders, it would behoove Walmart at Willow Bend to keep their ducks in a row in that department.
The signage in this new store is actually quite nice. Gone are the tacky 1980’s-style signs on the high wall. In their place are larger, brighter signs sporting trendy typography and stylish photos. The “Always Low Prices” signs are snappier, too, cast in black, white or graphite (depending on the department) with a fashionably cropped Walmart smiley face.
There is, in fact, a very strong presence of black and graphite throughout the store. Aside from the signage, many of the new fixtures are painted dark making products really stand out on the shelves. Not all the fixtures are black, of course; the baby department, for example, would not fare well with such a palette. Ditto for Lawn & Garden and Crafts.
Creative use of lighting is also found throughout the store. Some of the directional signage is lit from within, and portions of the Produce area have sparse halogen lighting, with many shelving units being lit from within. The low light creates a more subdued atmosphere and may actually make the food look better (I was hungry, so I may be biased there). It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Walmart took some pages from HEB’s Central Market design book, as it was very reminiscent of that style.
There was also very little in the way of ambient noise. No music was playing and I don’t think I heard a single announcement made over the PA (assuming there is a PA). The TVs were also turned down low so that you had to be standing nearby to hear them.
My verdict? While there seemed to be some amount of design hodge-podging, the overall look and feel of this pilot store is very nice. Walmart definitely equates the color black with style, as evidenced by the photos I took. The warmer colors of the floor, the brighter, more colorful high wall signage and use of more stylish colors and typefaces make all the difference. I won’t be surprised if this store does well because of its location, but I don’t know that I could see it working for every existing Walmart location—like the one I once visited on the West Side of San Antonio (yikes, tough neighborhood). Others have said that the name “Walmart” is inextricably linked to “cheap,” and any attempt to upset that association will weaken the core meaning of the brand and therefore fail. I’m not so sure that’s true. Walmart is about cheap prices, not cheap design. And as long as the prices stay low I’d say Walmart is free to polish their image as much as they please. I’ll bet most customers would appreciate the improved designs. But Walmart should be wary; the minute better store design causes a raise in prices, they’re going to get an earful from customers. But I’m definitely in favor of Walmart doing something about its sinfully bad design, and hopefully a good response from this pilot store will prompt them to keep going in this direction.
Check out the full Walmart at Willow Bend photoset on my Flickr account.