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Wal-Mart creeping closer to New York

Wal-Mart is on the prowl, testing the defenses of increasingly urban — and therefore, still somewhat alien — locations. It's in the Apple. It's on the mall. It's in the nearby 'burbs.

In the last three weeks, the giant retailer has opened a traditional discount store in Norwalk, CT, a mall-based store in Massapequa, on Long Island, NY, and, last Friday, launched a "tent event" at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, NY, that will run for two weeks.

The tent sale, similar to Target's grand entrance via dockside boat during the Christmas holidays, occupies a small space of only a couple of thousand square feet, selling a handful of skus — air conditioners, fans, light bulbs and dehumidifiers. It opened with a smattering of advance publicity — mostly ads on city buses — and seemed simply to offer an introduction of the Wal-Mart name to city denizens.

In the meantime, in another foray into a traditional mall setting, Wal-Mart opened in a former Sterns at the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa Park, on the south shore of Long Island in late May. In doing so it became the fourth anchor in the enclosed setting, alongside Macy's, JCPenney and Sears.

Much more important, however, it marked something of a departure from the giant discounter's traditional site selection, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of the company's ongoing commitment to test new venues.

But it's not a first. Indeed, it is the 15th such venture since the merchant crept into a mall setting virtually unnoticed for the first time in 1990, according to Mia Masten, community affairs specialist for Wal-Mart.

"Particularly in urban areas where one of our biggest challenges is space, we look for opportunities to utilize the [retail] space that is available," she explained. Going forward that will remain Wal-Mart's strategy, at least for the foreseeable future, she said.

The two-floor unit, a traditional Wal-Mart discount store sans groceries and measuring about 144,000 square feet, is centrally located and boldly signed, indoors and outside. Apparel dominates the main floor, while some children's apparel, hardlines and domestics control the second.

The mall itself is an older, small to moderate size regional center catering to bedroom communities in the vicinity of Seaford and Amityville — just 16 miles from the NYC border. In recent years it has been somewhat eclipsed by new or larger regional malls nearby, effectively trimming its trading area.

But beyond the unit's unusual location and use of vertical space, it's a typical Wal-Mart discount store in most every respect, as is the new Norwalk location — the second in that community.

At both the Long Island and Norwalk locations — visited mid-week — out of stocks in home textiles were extensive and housekeeping problematic. For example, in the Massapequa store more than 500 empty facings were noted. While store employees worked the aisles, little in the way of restocking was taking place. In Norwalk, a restocking effort was readily apparent. Somewhat ironically, an adjacent HomeGoods store was pristine by comparison.

Norwalk, too, perhaps offered some insights into Wal-Mart's domestics merchandising direction. Mainstays Home appeared to take on a bolder presence at the expense of Jubilee. At the same time, Springmaid merchandise seemed to be positioning at the top end.

Overall, more items pushed higher price points while core elements of the mix still stressed Wal-Mart's everyday low prices and rollbacks. The pricing strategy seemed in keeping with ceo Lee Scott's stated position that, while Wal-Mart isn't attempting to trade up its customer, it is trying to offer more of the better goods that its customers are paying more for elsewhere.

Also in Norwalk were:

  • Donna Dewberry at Home collection, from WestPoint Stevens, was shown on a power aisle endcap as well as an interior endcap. Featured was the decorative painter's 50/50 cotton/poly printed bed in bag priced at $55.96 full/queen.

  • Springmaid "Luxury Comforter Set" featured a made in the USA textured jacquard, polyester-filled, with a 63/37 cotton-rich face, and priced at $69.73 in queen.

  • Springmaid 300-count pima bed in bag, made in the USA with fabric from Pakistan, priced at $89.74 in queen size.

Similar merchandise evolution was not as obvious in the Long Island store.

Still, Wal-Mart clearly brought its magic to the mall. On an otherwise quiet Tuesday afternoon, as other stores saw light customer traffic, Wal-Mart had pulled in several hundred youngsters, teens and their parents to get autographs from a band that had just played a short concert and released a new CD.

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