Wednesday March 29, 2006

Walmart's Newest Store Goes for Style.

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.


Justin Perkins » 5653 days ago #

The first thing I thought of when I saw the “use of lighting” photo was Central Market as well.

I really do despise walmart, but good for them for realizing how scary their stores traditionally look.

Well documented visit too, I can’t believe you didn’t have the Department of Homeland Security on you after the first shot.

Wade Winningham » 5653 days ago #

We’ll have to see if they end up attracting a different level of customer’s, too. When I stopped in, I had about the same reaction as you. On my visit, however, I did notice two things about the customers… 1) most were there for the groceries, and 2) the people there didn’t seem too much different than the ones you’d see at a typical Wal-Mart.

Ryan Sims » 5653 days ago #

Well documented, Jared. Kudos to Wal*Mart… Lord knows how long it must have taken them to get this thing out of the board rooms and drawing boards. There seems to be a common theme coursing through the interweb right now about crappy design and in which instances it permissible… it’s interesting to see it bleed over into the tangible design realm as well. This will definitely be a hot topic in 2006.

Jared Christensen » 5653 days ago #

Justin – I was waiting for someone with a walkie talkie to approach me and ask me to stop, but no one ever did.

Wade – Plano is pretty middle to upper-middle class anywhere you go, really. So yeah… it was the same sort of crowd. I did wonder how many of those people were rubberneckers (like me) and how many were “locals” who would actually shop there regularly.

Andrew » 5653 days ago #

Neat! I saw a news story about this.

I’d like to check out the wine selection, myself. We currently live in a part of the East Coast that prohibits alcohol sales in a store like this, so this would be a double treat.

tyler lee » 5648 days ago #

Jare, If you want a truly new walmart experience head to McKinney. 380 & Central. About a year ago they opened their new experimental store up there that is enviormentally friendly. Solar panels on the roof, a huge windmill to provide power, rain water is used on irrigation of produce, and its lit on the inside by sunlight with huge windows, you dont feel like your in a warehouse. Plus its nice for the neighborhood too as the parking lot is surrounded by a series of stocked lakes and greenery. It’s very nice.

beth » 5647 days ago #

Does this mean they’re going to stop selling Git R Done shirts?

Jared Christensen » 5647 days ago #

@Tyle Ė Iíve heard about that store. As soon as I verify that youíre still in Austin, Iíll venture up that way. Maybe.

@Beth Ė We can only pray for such a thing. Though this Walmart did sport a much higher percentage of Metro 7, George and other more classy Walmart clothing brands.

Jonathan » 5644 days ago #

Their new signage really reminds me of Ikea. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I think it looks pretty good.

Daniel Nicolas » 5629 days ago #

Wow. I like it. I wish they’d do that to all the stores, but I think you’re right – if people notice the price of things going up correlating to the new swanky store, they’ll be pissed.

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