business news in context, analysis with attitude

WHITE PLAIN, NY - As reported virtually everywhere yesterday, Wal-Mart opened its newest urban store in White Plains, New York – a multi-level, 180,000-square-foot unit that the company says is specifically designed to meet the needs of local residents, especially nearby apartment dwellers.

Much of the attention being paid to the store because it is just about 45 minutes north of New York City – which is like Oz to Wal-Mart, an emerald city where it has no stores, and that it feels offers it the potential of near limitless numbers of new customers and sales numbers that will not be cannibalizing other Wal-Mart units. If Wal-Mart can work in White Plains, the reasoning seems to be, then the company’s efforts will seem less threatening and maybe even more appealing to denizens of Manhattan and the outer boroughs.

Having spent some time yesterday at the new Wal-Mart, we can report that it was a) as busy as you would expect a new Wal-Mart to be, b) completely conventional in terms of design and décor, and c) stocked with as strong a grocery selection as we can remember seeing in a Wal-Mart not labeled a supercenter.

The conventionality of the décor and design is hardly a surprise. In most Wal-Marts, the goal seems to be to keep the shell as plain as possible and the shelves crowded with stock – and White Plains is no different. The store seems to be nicer than the two units that Wal-Mart operates about a half-hour away in Norwalk, Connecticut (conceded even by company insiders to be two of the ugliest, most beaten up stores operated by the chain), but not nearly as nice as supercenters that we’ve seen operating in places like Texas and Arkansas. But that’s a subjective judgment.

The food section, on the lower level of the store – requiring the use of a special cart escalator if you’re moving between floors with your shopping cart – is strong. Wal-Mart has made a point of the fact that it is carrying a lot of small sizes that will appeal to nearby apartment and condo dwellers, and that seemed to be the biggest part of its “localization” strategy. Prices seemed decent, if not overwhelming; on a number of items that we were familiar with, we noted that prices were slightly above those charged at Costco and Stew Leonard’s.

The closest supermarket competition offers very different experiences, by the way. Within a mile of the store – and in less of an urban neighborhood location – are both a Super Stop & Shop and a beautiful Whole Foods, the latter of which especially has turned into a destination for people living in nearby communities.

In short, we’d give the store a solid “B” – but we wouldn’t bet on it offering much reassurance to New York City opponents who will see Wal-Mart as some sort of invasive, foreign monster from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

KC's View: