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Wal-Mart tests slimmer supercenter

Alma Jordan has shopped at enough Wal-Mart Supercenters to know that the new one at N Dale Mabry Highway and W Waters Avenue is the smallest one she's ever seen.

But the 54-year-old respiratory therapist who was shopping Monday for groceries said she didn't think it made much difference.

"The only thing missing is the restaurant," she said. "Other than that, I haven't noticed anything."

That would probably be music to the ears of Wal-Mart executives. Faced with increasingly restrictive zoning laws in some of its markets, the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant has been trying to find a way to shoehorn the vast selection of groceries and general merchandise available at a typical supercenter into a much smaller space.

The result is Wal-Mart's new N Dale Mabry store, which opened Wednesday at the site of a former Sam's Club warehouse store. It is the first of its kind, a model for new locations elsewhere around the country facing tight zoning or urban space limitations.

By the standards of its siblings, the N Dale Mabry store might be considered downright petite, boasting total floor and storage space of just under 100,000 square feet. That's less than half the size of the mammoth 236,000-square-foot location in Pinellas Park and far smaller than the average supercenter size of 190,000 square feet. While Wal-Mart typically needs 20 to 30 acres for a supercenter, the new Tampa store fits in less than 10.

The supercenter has been the engine powering Wal-Mart's growth as the nation's biggest food retailer. The company's older discount stores are being outfitted with more and more shelves for groceries or replaced with the bigger supercenters.

Until now, Wal-Mart developed only two basic sizes of stores that offer its full-sized grocery offering: One is the sprawling supercenter. The newer version is the 40,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, about the size of a standard supermarket. The first two neighborhood markets in the Tampa Bay area open this year in Tampa. One is on Hillsborough Avenue at Elliott Drive. The other is on Florida Avenue at Busch Boulevard.

"The supercenter is our most productive type of store," Wal-Mart president and chief executive Lee Scott said recently at the National Retail Federation's annual convention in New York. "But as we move more aggressively into urban markets where there are more zoning and development constraints, we will need some alternative prototypes."

While Wal-Mart was not confronted with such restrictions in Tampa, there is a big reason why the company downsized its new supercenter to exactly 99,995 square feet. In California, some suburban towns have outlawed any retail store larger than 100,000 square feet. The aim is to protect local merchants from so-called "big box" retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the Sports Authority.

Indeed, Wal-Mart, which expects to keep opening more than 200 supercenters a year, is planning to build its first big stores in well-developed urban markets such as Los Angeles and Dallas. The company expects to experiment with two-story supercenters there much like Target has in Atlanta and Kmart has in New York City. In two-story discount stores, escalators frequently can accommodate shopping carts.

A parade of securities analysts, retail analysts and rival retailers are expected to closely monitor the new Tampa store. They want to see what Wal-Mart decided to keep in the mix and what changes the chain makes going forward.

What they'll find is a store that strives to live up to its "supercenter" billing, with some concessions to fit into a smaller space. There's no portrait studio. No hair or nail salon. No McDonald's or Wal-Mart's own Radio Grill food service. The automotive department has no tires or oil change service and a smaller selection of car batteries than the bigger supercenters. The sports department has fewer rifles and gun accessories. The grocery aisles measure 72 feet long rather than 76 feet.

Other than that, it has most features a customer might expect to find at a typical supercenter, according to store manager Chris Bogedain. The trick for Wal-Mart will be to keep the shelves stocked all the time, because the store has less storage space than its bigger cousins.

"The goal is to offer as much of the same selection and convenience within 100,000 square feet," he said.

Less obvious adjustments include slightly narrower store aisles, a smaller storage area in the rear of the store and just one entrance and one exit out front, as opposed to separate entrances and exits for the grocery and general-merchandise sides of a typical supercenter, Bogedain said.

The store has also tailored its offerings to reflect local tastes, with an expanded selection of grocery items targeted at Hispanic shoppers. They include El Sembrador frozen foods, Badia brand spices and a variety of coffees marketed to Hispanic customers.

Supercenters are doing strong business in the Tampa Bay area. Wal-Mart named its Pinellas Park supercenter the chain's No. 1 store in the country Monday for the second year in row based on a combination of sales and other performance measures. The store's 2003 sales were $165-million.

"Tampa is a busy market, so they designed the prototype here to see how consumers would accept it," Bogedain said.

The prototype gets a thumbs-up from 35-year-old bilingual teacher's aide Nellie Martinez of Tampa, who stopped by the store Monday to pick up some soup, Spanish rice and ramen noodles.

"You don't have to be going store to store to get your stuff," she said.

_ Times staff writer Anne Lindberg contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albrightsptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Wal-Mart's new supercenter: A tale of the tape

Typical supercenter Tampa's prototype

Square feet total 190,000 99,995

Full-sized grocery store Yes Yes

Bank Sometimes No

Pharmacy Yes Yes _ first supercenter with

a drive-through

One-hour photo Yes Yes

Garden center Yes Yes

Fast food outlet Yes No

Auto service center Yes No

Source: Wal-Mart

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