Walmart's "Urban Strategy": Smaller Stores with Fresh Food

Walmart is moving into the city with 20,000-sqaure-foot stores that have fresh fruit. What will the impact be?

Walmart, having completely conquered the exurbs, is now planning a new version of its retail outlet that will work in urban environments. The new "format" is expected to be a 20,000 square foot store that features fresh food—a version of the "Marketside" prototype stores it's been testing. Apparently Walmart is already scouting for new urban locations and the plans for urban invasion are expected to be announced next month.

At 20,000 square feet, these new urban stores are going to be considerably smaller than the supercenters, which are around 150,000 square feet. They're still about eight times the size of a 7-11 though. Judging by the look of the Marketside store above, it seems likely these new, urban Walmart will be made for smaller strip malls rather than storefronts in mixed-use buildings.

So what's to like here? First, it's true that "food deserts"—areas with lots of fast food and few healthy, fresh alternatives—are a real problem in our cities. Urban Walmart stores that focus on fresh food could have real public health benefits at a large scale. It's also encouraging to see Walmart step back from an expansion strategy that depends on—and reinforces—bad land use and transportation decisions, even if that's only because it doesn't have another option.

But at the same time, Walmart's devastating impact on local economies in the towns and suburbs where it's been setting up shop thus far has been well documented. The superstores siphon money away from local economies, depresses wages, and kill family businesses. It would be a bummer to see that wrought on our cities.

Ultimately we want urban areas to have a robust and diverse array of local, independently owned retailers. Unlike corporate big box outlets, local businesses keep profits in the community and have a long-term investment in their neighborhoods. They also just make our cities more interesting and culturally rich.

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