A Tampa design and architectural firm is on the front lines of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s efforts to fight increasing competition from convenience stores, dollar stores and discount supermarkets.
The firm, Api(+), has designed Wal-Mart's first convenience store for customers seeking fast, one-stop shopping without trekking through a parking lot and cavernous store.
Walmart To Go opened in March near Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. It has eight gasoline pumps and a store selling fresh and package foods, snacks, coffee and basic household goods. Bentonville Butcher & Deli runs a counter serving sandwiches and sides.
At 5,200 square feet, the store is about the same size as a Wawa store and quite a bit larger than traditional convenience stores like Shell.
Prices are comparable to full-sized Walmart stores, making them considerably cheaper than at most convenience stores that charge a premium for fast and easy.
"You can't have Walmart on the side and then have high prices,'' said Tom Henken, vice president and director of design for Api(+).
Wal-Mart says the store is a test concept and no others are planned nationwide. But elements could be incorporated elsewhere in the chain.
"Today, more than ever, we recognize that our customers are looking for different ways to shop,'' said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Deisha Barnett. "When a customer is looking to stock up, they will go to a supercenter; when they just need groceries, they may go to a Neighborhood Market; and when they are looking to fill up the gas tank and take home a meal, they can stop at Walmart To Go."
Headquartered in Tampa's Rocky Point, Api(+) started consulting for Wal-Mart in 1997. It has worked on every store format, including the smaller supercenter at Dale Mabry Highway and Waters Avenue, which became a model for others in urban and suburban areas nationwide.
The firm, which specializes in grocery, restaurant and retail space, designed Walmart To Go with large front windows and interior signs, so customers getting gas can see into the store and will want to go inside. A canopy between the pump and front door keeps people shaded and dry.
"We wanted it not to look like a fuel-based concept,'' Henken said. "If you tore the pumps off, it would look more like a restaurant.''
Walmart To Go is the retail giant's latest small store concept. A few years ago the chain started rolling out 15,000-square-foot Walmart Express stores. It also is testing 2,500-square-foot college-based Walmart on Campus stores.
"It's a way to drive sales and get customers used to coming to their brand,'' said Steven Montgomery, president of b2b Solutions, a convenience store consulting company. "It's a way to extend yourself further in the marketplace.''
Financially, he doubts Walmart To Go will be successful. Convenience stores generally have to charge higher prices because they don't do the volume of larger stores and are located on highly visible, more expensive street corners.
Selling gas will draw customers but not huge profits. Industrywide, convenience stores generate about two-thirds of their sales from gas and the rest from store goods, Montgomery said. But when it comes to the profit, the reverse is true. Most of the money stores make comes from shoppers who walk in to buy something.