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Is Big Box Downsizing?

Welcome to the new Neighborhood Market

There’s a new neighbor on the street, and he seems a little friendlier than the last.

The last one was just kind of overwhelming. He took up a lot of space, and a lot of time. Sure, he had a lot to offer, and he was reasonable enough, but going to him for anything was, well, just not a great experience.

Welcome to the new, downsized, friendlier, Walmart Neighborhood Market.

Say what you will about Walmart, they do innovate and do different things with their brand. They aren’t wrapped up in size—a typical Walmart store is 108,000 square feet; these new Neighborhood Markets, which first came on the scene in 1998 but are just now rapidly expanding, are about 42,000 square feet. Compare that to the size of a Supercenter, at 185,000 square feet.

It’s no wonder that the Neighborhood Market is a kinder, simpler place to shop.

Our tour of a couple of locations now has led to the following conclusions. First, they are an interesting mix of big box bulk and everyday items. Perhaps because the selection is not so overwhelming, it feels like you can find more interesting things—and take your time while you are looking.

You’ll find some fine cheeses, mixed in with Great Value brand. Boxed bakery items, fresh from somewhere, and standard boxes of Ho Hos and powdered donuts. It’s sort of a downsized big box store, with much of the variety without the choice choke of a bigger store.

The vegetable aisles are well laid out, in the style that Whole Foods gets credit for, with well-marked items and a greater variety than our grandmothers ever had. There are wide aisles and, surprise, surprise, helpful people who actually leave what they are doing to help you find something when needed. There is no standard Walmart greeter here—there is real friendliness and actual service.

Prices are comparable to on-sale items at other stores, and the selection is more than adequate. Beyond groceries, you can find all kinds of other things—from putty knives and electrical cords to air filters and hair products. They have giant bottles of things like syrup, and tiny bottles of things like Martinelli’s cider, so there is a little bit of a split personality when it comes to product sizes. But, then, we’re betting Walmart knows exactly what the buying habits of its clientele are, and they plan accordingly.

Regardless of product size, the store size is smaller, making it easier to run in and grab something. It also makes the experience more personal—you could almost believe they would know your name if you came in regularly. If that’s the case, Walmart just may be on to something.

They now have close to 200 Neighborhood Markets, compared to more than 3,000 Supercenters. And, they are experimenting with something even smaller—the first two Walmart Express test stores, with a size of about 15,000 square feet, opened in 2011, only in Northwest Arkansas, for now.

It appears the big box is downsizing itself.

And, in the process, becoming a better neighbor.