DEARBORN, Mich. — Faten Saad knew she wasn't in a typical Wal-Mart when she saw an end-of-the-aisle display featuring Mamool.
Boxes of the date-filled, whole wheat cookie from the Middle East welcomed the 21-year-old Lebanon native into the international aisle of the new Wal-Mart store in this Detroit suburb known as the capital of Arab America. Aisle 3, which also features Eastern European and Hispanic food, represents many of the 550 items geared toward Arab-American shoppers in the store that opened last week.
It might be statistically tiny in a store with more than 150,000 items, but it's symbolically huge for the world's largest retailer as it seeks to change from a cost-is-everything monolith to one that customizes its stores to meet neighborhood needs.
Managers say they seek peace with neighborhood merchants, and vow not to undercut them. But some experts and observers say Wal-Mart's well-planned launch in Dearborn is bound to shake up buying and selling. Southeastern Michigan is home to an estimated 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East.
"I have not heard of anything this tailored. It's inspiring to me as a shareholder," said Patricia Edwards, portfolio manager and retail analyst in the Seattle office of San Francisco investment manager Wentworth, Hauser & Violich, which has 537,000 shares of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stock.
It's clear as soon as shoppers walk in that this isn't a typical Wal-Mart. Inside the grocery entrance are 22 produce tables filled with squash, beans and cucumbers common in Middle Eastern dishes. The section also features grains and vegetables popular among blacks and Hispanics, two other demographics with sizable populations living nearby.
"It's like a farmers' market," said Bill Bartell, the manager who developed the international aisle with Tut's International Export & Import Co., a Dearborn distributor that handles sourcing for many of the store's Middle-Eastern items.
More than a year of studying the market and meeting with community groups was put to the test last fall, when Bartell and a Tut's executive began to work on what would become Aisle 3. They set up an 80-foot-long counter in an empty warehouse and hauled out products — date-filled cookies, grape leaves, vacuum-packed olives, chick peas and a 97-ounce jar of olive oil imported from the Middle East.
Bartell said the store aims to offer convenience — not a comprehensive selection of specialty products.
"It's very important that we have the variety of the Muslim, Hispanic items, local items, at a comparable price," he said. "If you go over to Warren (Avenue) where there's other … small retailers, they have a variety that goes on and on and on."
At the Super Greenland Market, which Wal-Mart studied, customers can find one whole side of an aisle with more than 20 different varieties of chick peas and fava beans.
Still, the lure of everything under one roof could prove stronger than product depth.
Warren David, a public relations and marketing specialist focusing on Arab-American and Islamic markets, called Wal-Mart's arrival bittersweet. He's happy for the steps it's taken, but "at the same time I can't help but think it's going to have some kind of impact on the local business community."
The Dearborn Wal-Mart is part of a 2-year-old corporate effort to help sales by tailoring stores to local demographics, said Amy Wyatt-Moore at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. It targeted six groups: Hispanics, blacks, empty-nesters/boomers, affluent, suburban and rural shoppers. Dearborn's store is designed to reflect its neighborhood, not serve as a national template for Arab-American shoppers, she said.
"We realize there are more than those six broad demographic groups around the country. In some places the result will be a unique store," she said