Sunday, November 14, 2010

Behind the Lines at Walmart

I recently decided to make a reconnaissance visit to the newly opened Northcross Walmart Supercenter that engendered so much controversy when it first squeaked through the city approval process just ahead of the big box ordinance three years ago.

I had no intention of actually purchasing anything there. I avoid shopping at Walmart whenever possible because whatever cost savings the average American consumer might realize there goes toward undermining the living standards of the average American worker. Their new Butthole Surfers-inspired logo does nothing to change that.

That said, a quick perusal of the grocery side of the store revealed a few standout deals. Bananas were .36/lb., a full eight cents lower than H-E-B's regular price. Walmart's in-house imitation of Triscuits sold for $1.32, compared to H-E-B Hill Country Fare Woven Wheats at $1.67.

I think you could save money by shopping at Walmart over H-E-B if you spent the majority of your grocery dollar on packaged food. However, one thing that struck me about the Northcross Supercenter is how relatively little floor space is dedicated to fresh foods and how few of Walmart's prices on meat and produce best those of H-E-B. And why not? A key component of Sam Walton's retailing genius was in making sure goods make it to stores just in time for customers to buy them. It's harder to do that with fresh foods.

The rest of the store was just about what you'd expect at a standard Walmart with a few subtle differences. There is more natural light coming in through the roof, which improves energy efficiency while cutting down on the depressing florescent glow. Also, the bicycle racks are shaped like bicycles, which I guess is Walmart's attempt at whimsy. Overall, it's less ugly than the traditional blue/gray box, but it's still a box.

Time will tell how much the Northcross Walmart will (or won't) alter the characteristics of its immediate surroundings. I haven't noticed much difference in traffic during my morning and afternoon weekday commutes on Burnet yet. The holiday season should provide a more meaningful snapshot of how the store will impact area traffic patterns.

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