Advertisement

Brandon Walmart rolls back hours and calls to local law enforcement

 
In early March, before the Walmart Supercenter on Causeway Boulevard cut back its nighttime hours, employees created barriers out of shopping carts and plastic mesh to prevent overnight theft.
In early March, before the Walmart Supercenter on Causeway Boulevard cut back its nighttime hours, employees created barriers out of shopping carts and plastic mesh to prevent overnight theft.
Published April 29, 2017

BRANDON

There was only one reason why Edelseiln Vargas would travel to his neighborhood Walmart Supercenter after 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. His 7-month-old son was out of diapers and Walmart is always open, he said.

But the days of 24-hour shopping at the Brandon store on Causeway Boulevard ended last month, days before Vargas moved back to Heather Lakes after a four-year stay in Puerto Rico. When a sign at the entrance let Vargas know that his purchases must now be made between 6 a.m. and midnight, he ditched the typical packs of 29 Huggies for a cardboard box stuffed with 172.

"This store is way different than before. It's getting really crowded and the lines inside are crazy long," Vargas said as he hauled his bags to his truck in the packed parking lot. "I work the late night shift, and 12-hour shifts, so now I'll have to really think ahead about stocking up."

The Causeway Boulevard store isn't the only Walmart to stop staying open all night. The day the Brandon store switched to new hours, March 11, so did the Port Richey store on U.S. 19. The retail giant began rolling back operating hours in 2015, when 64 former 24-hour stores nationwide switched to the 6 a.m. to midnight schedule.

Company officials declined to release the number of stores that have made the switch since 2015, but headlines suggest the chain's 3,500 supercenters are the most affected. Stores in Alabama, Illinois and Missouri are among those switched in the last three months.

The move was motivated by a study of customer shopping patterns, analyzing which hours and locations saw the most traffic, said Ragan Dickens, Walmart's national media relations director. Now, employees at stores like the Brandon supercenter will spend the hours between midnight and 6 a.m. restocking shelves, cleaning aisles and making other enhancements to "improve customers' experience," Dickens said.

"We're not doing away with 24-hour stores completely," he said. "It's strictly a location by location situation."

The new schedule comes in the wake of company-wide efforts to freshen its image. Walmart raised its minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2016, has added high-quality organic produce to grocery sections and has begun testing a new barcode-scanning technology.

The reduction of overnight hours should also help the company combat the retail thefts that have plagued stores in recent years.

A Tampa Bay Times report last May found local law enforcement responded to nearly 16,800 calls in one year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, or about two calls an hour, every hour, every day.

In 2014, the year analyzed for the report, the Causeway Boulevard store had the highest volume of calls in the Brandon area: 543.

Earlier this year, the staff at the store began blocking off some departments at night, fashioning a barricade with shopping carts and mesh fencing around the cosmetics and jewelry aisles. Any customer wanting to purchase something from those shelves had to be escorted into the section by an employee.

The barricades disappeared once the store began closing at midnight.

But freshening produce may be easier than freshening an image that sometimes includes patrol cars, homeless people camped out in the parking lot and loitering teens blasting music.

The Causeway Boulevard location is an easy drive for Richard and Irene Macri, but they say they prefer driving to other Walmart stores or a nearby Target for nighttime shopping.

"I just don't feel safe coming here late at night," she said.

HCSO records show a decline in law enforcement involvement. Spokeswoman Cristal Nunez said deputies responded to 681 calls at the store in 2015, 432 calls in 2016 and 131 from January 1 to April 24.

Calls in recent weeks include complaints of shoplifting, car theft, drug paraphernalia, counterfeiting, credit card fraud and felony criminal mischief.

"No retailer is immune to the challenge of crime," Dickens said of retail theft. "We recognize the importance of this issue at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology to support our stores."

In August 2016, the company began a restorative justice program in more than 1,500 stores, offering "first-time, low-risk" shoplifters the chance to attend educational courses in lieu of prosecution.

Nationwide, Walmart has seen a 35 percent decrease in the number of calls made to law enforcement agencies, Dickens said. Since Jan. 1, stores in the Tampa Bay market have seen a 60 percent reduction in calls, he said. Employees are also receiving additional training in "asset protection" and the company has hired 9,000 additional "customer hosts" to stand at supercenter entrances to check receipts and deter crime, Dickens said.

"We'll continue our outreach to law enforcement across the country," he said, "as part of our ongoing commitment to meet our customers' and associates' expectations of a safe and enjoyable shopping experience."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.