The South Florida growth coincides with Walmart’s moves nationally to expand its presence in the country’s largest urban markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and New York. Walmart has typically lagged behind its major competitor Target on urban expansion in these and other markets.
Analysts say Walmart’s new focus has been a long time coming and one that is necessary to meet Wall Street’s requirements for growth. Gone are the days when Walmart could simply follow the new housing developments further out into the suburbs and find another large tract of undeveloped land to plop down a giant battle grey box.
“Those were the golden times,” said Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillan Doolittle, a national retail consulting firm. “They’ve built out most of the country and the ones that are left are the ones like Miami that are a challenge. Those top 10 urban markets have been much more difficult for Walmart to penetrate. They understand that over the next decade, they’re going to have to be in that game. That means being more adaptive, flexible and willing to work with the community. That’s a skill set that Walmart has to continue to develop.”
Walmart executives say they have done just what Stern suggests and are willing to customize an individual store to suit the market or the available space. Today, a supercenter can range in size from 90,000 square feet to more than 200,000 square feet. The smaller supercenters still have all the key product categories; the biggest difference is in the number of choices of brands and sizes.
“Now we’re more flexible in our format,” said Steve Restivo, senior director of community affairs for Walmart. “We’ve got a format and size to match almost any market.”
In addition to smaller supercenters, Walmart is aggressively rolling out its new Neighborhood Market concept, which is in essence a typical grocery store with a limited assortment of Walmart’s general merchandise. The Neighborhood Market format was introduced by Walmart in 1998, but the company currently only has 200 locations nationally.
At only about 40,000 square feet — one-fourth the size of the average supercenter — these are easier to locate in urban areas where space is at a premium, both in terms of availability and price. The company is also testing a Walmart Express format, which at 15,000 square feet or less is closer to a convenience store. None are currently planned for Florida.
The combination of more supercenters and the Neighborhood Market format could be a turning point in Miami, where Walmart needs only a few percentage points of market share to overtake Winn-Dixie.
“I do believe Walmart is soon to be the No. 2 grocer in this market,” said Stephen Bittel, chairman and founder of Terranova, a Miami Beach manager and owner of shopping centers.
Fueling that growth are shoppers like Christina Doron, who has been doing her grocery shopping at Walmart superstores for years.
“They’re a lot cheaper,” said Doron, who visits the Doral store near her office several times a week, although she lives in West Palm Beach. “They’re a lot better than Publix. They have everything here.”
Despite the demand from customers, Walmart’s slow growth in Miami and most urban markets has typically been a function of land being both too scarce and too expensive to accommodate the retailer’s traditional big-box store. In the old days Walmart supercenters were an average of 180,000 square feet and built on close to 20 acres with a never-ending parking lot.