I had the opportunity to join residents of several East Valley communities near Phoenix at a preview of a possible small-supermarket future on Oct.4, when Walmart simultaneously opened of four 15,000 square foot Marketside stores.
The Marketside openings seem like a challenge to UK grocery powerhouse Tesco, which already operates 25 of its small-footprint Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets throughout greater Phoenix.
“This is a conventional grocery store shrunk down,” said John Rand, director of retail insight for Management Ventures, Inc., who was spotted taking notes at the Tempe Marketside location. “Shoppers will understand it immediately, whereas people are still figuring out Fresh & Easy.”
The Marketside assortment heavily features national brands, a marked contrast with Fresh & Easy, which emphasizes private label. However like the Tesco format, this new effort from Walmart features an appealing range of ready-to-eat, and ready-to-prepare foods and meal kits, evidently intended to serve the grab-and-go lifestyle of many busy consumers. The company also claims some 300 natural and organic products throughout the store. Prices were deemed “competitive” by several observers and competitors on the scene – some visibly lower than conventional supermarkets, but only a few matched the Walmart Supercenters that seem to permeate the area.
A variety of prepared food items – side dishes, entrées and “family sized” meals – were offered for $2, $4, $6 and $8 each, displayed in sleek coffin coolers. Shrink-wrapped meal kits, priced at around $10 and $11 included chopped raw ingredients and sauces for such dishes as chicken fajitas, Mongolian beef stir fry and Asian orange chicken. Staffers clearly were challenged to keep these displays filled, as shoppers armed with opening day coupons (one offered a discounted price on an entrée of six cents) emptied them into their carts.
All prepared and ready-to-prepare foods had two-inch wide adhesive labels indicating the date each item was prepared and when it should be used by. These items are packed and delivered to the stores by an area contractor, according to an employee. In contrast with Tesco’s Fresh & Easy operation, which does its own food prep and pack at a centralized facility for shipment to the stores, Walmart has not yet set up such a facility.
We learned some local residents had received gift bags filled with product samples and coupons in the days prior to the opening. They may have brought in the crowd at the Chandler store on Saturday morning, but there were also an impressive number of observers, staff, and local Walmart employees on hand, and at one point a busload of Asian visitors who were evidently on an organized tour.
Three of the four stores offer beer and wine, however the Chandler location did not, and employees volunteered that this was because of its location directly next door to a KinderCare day care facility. As a result, the Chandler store had a little bit of floor space to spare, which was largely absorbed by what may be described as a “power square” where temporary promotional displays were located. One pallet display was stacked with cases of Niagara drinking water, 24-count half-liter bottles, priced at $2.97. Another offered 3.25-ounce bags of Pop Chips, “market value” at $1.50 each. Other display tables offered baked goods and fresh fruit – bananas were 68 cents a pound, and medium honeydew melons were $3.27 each. One shopper commented that this area, at least 20 feet wide, would easily accommodate eight or more café tables and chairs during the lunch trade.
A visiting Walmart operations person informed that energy-saving features adapted from the well-known Walmart green project stores in Texas included pull-down “shades” on the cooler cases that can be closed at night to save on electricity use. Overhead lighting was compact fluorescent throughout, with liberal use of LED lighting in the black-framed freezer cases that made product stand out clearly, even through the double-glass doors.
Notably, package sizes throughout the store were small, a contrast with Walmart’s supercenters. Individual steaks were available in the meat case, and the largest size liquid laundry detergent available was the 50-load concentrate. This perhaps reveals a great deal about the Marketside method – it’s designed to serve the grab and go world of commuters and single-person households. Mass consumers would do better to pilot the SUV over to Sam’s Club or the Supercenter.