Walmart is getting a makeover. Think more color, more design flair, more Internet savvy and definitely smaller, at least in terms of the size of stores.
Just look at the new supercenter opening July 20 in St. Petersburg.
The company designed a new "bungalow" facade to fit in with the nearby Kenwood area. It puts another look in its architectural arsenal that already includes log cabin, art deco and colonial Main Street supercenters.
There's no self-checkout as the discount store giant begins phasing out do-it-yourself scanning, except where customers prefer it.
By the front door is a flashy shop with its own loading dock where customers pick up items they ordered online and had shipped to the store for free.
But most significantly, the store is smaller, half the size of the sprawling behemoths Walmart was trying to elbow into the Tampa Bay area five years ago.
"It's the best of the best merchandise from our larger supercenters," said Kody Daley, the 31-year-old store manager who joined Walmart as a bagger at 19. "We have most everything, especially in food, but perhaps one or two (versions) of an item (on the shelf) instead of four or five."
Indeed, smaller stores are the new reality as the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant custom-tailors its biggest boxes like this to penetrate more urban neighborhoods and get closer to where people live.
It's also a way to parlay the company's sophisticated high-speed logistical tools to push more products more profitably through smaller, but still high-volume, stores. Walmart researchers, for instance, picked up that more shoppers who live on fixed government checks run low on cash at the end of the month. To help out those cash-pinched shoppers, the selection of large economy sizes shifts automatically near the end of the month to more smaller sizes that cost less.
At 107,000 square feet, the new supercenter at 201 34th St. N is half the size of the 207,000-square-foot store that opened five years ago 3 miles to the south or the 230,000-square-foot giant that's 10 miles north in Pinellas Park and opened in the late 1990s.
The smaller supercenter stocks 142,000 items vs. 180,000 at its bigger siblings. It's missing a garden center and a tire and lube shop. And there's a wireless store only, rather than the common lineup of eye care center, branch bank, hair and nail salon and fast-food outlet.
But there is plenty of apparel, electronics and home decorating goods.
Like most of its latest wave of bay area expansion, the new St. Petersburg supercenter — a discount store paired with a supermarket under one roof — fills gaping holes left by other retailers in under-served parts of the region.
Now that Kmart has retreated, Walmart is the only supercenter chain left operating in Pinellas County south of 38th Avenue N.
Locally, Walmart has recovered from a series of zoning defeats that stymied many of its largest supercenters. The chain has been opening one new supercenter a year in the bay area and expanding discount stores into them. There are more supercenters on the drawing board locally, and construction on a Sam's Club in central St. Petersburg starts this fall.
"We have not slowed down" during the downturn, said Shaun Leggett, Tampa market manager. "And the pace is picking up as we take advantage of all the vacant supermarket space here by re-opening them as Walmart Markets."
That's what Walmart renamed what had been called Neighborhood Markets and decided to speed up their growth from 155 to 300 stores nationwide within 18 months.
The number of Walmart Markets, essentially conventional grocery stores, in the Tampa Bay area already is set to grow from six to 10 by this winter. That includes a former Sweetbay in Dunedin, a former Albertsons in Brandon and new supermarket-sized stores in Clearwater and the Bloomingdale area of Hillsborough County.
Supercenters have been the engine that propelled Walmart into the nation's largest food retailer. In only 15 years, its share of the $20.9 billion-a-year Orlando/Tampa Bay food retailing market has jumped from nothing to 29.7 percent, behind only Publix.
However, Walmart's reliance on supercenters has figured into the chain's struggle to turn its slumping sales in the United States back into positive territory. Sales in stores open more than a year — a barometer of a retailer's hold on customers — are down 1.5 percent for most of the past 18 months.
Much of that is blamed on the jobless recovery that Walmart says has hurt its core customers deeper than those of other supermarkets. But the company also pins half the sales decline on its relentless rollout of new supercenters, some built just 2 miles from an existing ones. The proximity inevitably draws customers away from the older stores.
Historically, supercenters built close to each other rack up more combined sales after a few years. But Walmart concedes many supercenters opened in a building binge that peaked at 277 new ones nationally in 2007 are taking up to six years to reach that maturity.
Other experts see the decline as evidence that the bigger supercenters hit a saturation point and will become less attractive to shoppers drawn to faster, more convenient options.
So Walmart has launched tests on an even smaller food store — roughly the size of a CVS drugstore — called Walmart Express. It's designed to compete in urban and suburban areas with Dollar General, Aldi and Fresh & Easy, a new U.S. creation of Tesco, Walmart's biggest supercenter rival in the United Kingdom.
Tesco spent $1 billion opening 150 stores in California, Nevada and Arizona with a focus on fresh food to go.
While Walmart's interest in express stores has grabbed headlines, it's just an experiment for now.
"The supercenter remains our primary growth vehicle because nothing except the Neighborhood Market provides as much return on equity," said Bill Simon, president of Walmart U.S.
Nationally, the company continues expanding its 696 remaining discount stores into supercenters and pouring money into remodeling 500 supercenters every year to reflect the chain's new, warmer look.
Walmarts that were uniformly battleship gray and slate blue are being painted in earth tones like toasty brown, goldenrod, brown and powder blue.
At a 6-year-old supercenter at 3501 34th St. S in St. Petersburg, the current remodeling included yanking out the self-service checkout registers.
Crews are widening the main aisles by 5 more feet to make room for the nationwide return of Walmart's action alley. That's a lineup of pallets filled with the store's most compelling deals that are wheeled into shoppers' path.
Action alley was dismantled a few years ago to make it easier to get around.
"This gives us the best of both worlds," store manager Mike Musumesce said. "Great deals and wider aisles."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.