Shabby Chic

How can Wal-Mart attract shoppers from one of the state’s wealthiest suburbs? With sushi bars, high-end electronics, and the illusion of elegance.

ERASE ANY DOUBT THAT YOU ARE being followed. Walk through the new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Plano, and eager, clean-cut men stare at you as if you were exotic prey. Will you inquire about the $2,984 one-carat diamond ring in the jewelry department? Will you linger over the $298 treadmill? Or will you just grab the two-for-$5 Slow Cooker Helper and dash for the checkout? The men in suits may ask if you are enjoying your “shopping experience.” But regardless of your answer, a sophisticated tracking system will report your purchases to Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters, where some poor schlub will analyze the data and wonder where on earth the legacy of penny-pinching Sam Walton is headed.

This atypical Wal-Mart—which, nonetheless, has most of the same items as its regular stores—opened on March 22 on the far west side of town, shoehorned next to Costco and Home Depot and not far from Target. The store is unique; it’s a one-of-a-kind retail “laboratory” designed to lure the upper crust, and there’s no upper crust like Plano’s. Here in the Dallas über-suburb, where shoppers at one mall are greeted by doormen, the 223,000-square-foot Wal-Mart has been built out of light-brown brick to match the color of the surrounding maze of gigantic homes that begin at around $300,000. 

Why rich folks, you ask?

Maybe you didn’t hear about the slump. Wal-Mart is no longer the country’s largest company, thanks in part to Exxon Mobil’s booming sales. But something else is giving Wal-Mart a migraine. It could be the 20 percent stock drop over the past two years. Or last November’s report of the smallest quarterly profit increase in four years. Or community opposition to stores in urban markets such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, which rallied a war room of experts, including Robert McAdam, a former political strategist at the Tobacco Institute who oversees Wal-Mart’s corporate communications.

Wal-Mart even met opposition in Plano, an area not known as a bastion for hell-raisers, where a dozen homeowners’ associations formed the Good Neighbor Coalition to voice their concerns. Will the Wal-Mart look junky? they asked. Will it draw an unwanted “element” to the area? Irene Scherer, a former vice president of the Glen Heather homeowners’ association, said, “I don’t care if they make their store out of solid gold. It doesn’t change who Wal-Mart is.”  

Yet Wal-Mart’s spokespeople say that some of these well-heeled residents will be drawn to the store. The company knows that wealthy people already shop at Wal-Mart, but they stick to buying groceries. Wal-Mart theorizes that if it can nudge those customers into the general-merchandise area, the retailer can retain global dominance. Since brand-new shoppers are increasingly difficult to bring in, Wal-Mart must dance with those loyal customers who brought them—and squeeze them.

Plano, it believes, is the perfect testing ground. In Texas, Wal-Mart ranks number one in market share among groceries. The company is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary here this year, and no state has more Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs. The Metroplex houses one of the greatest concentrations of Wal-Mart stores in the country: 104 locations (compare that with 84 in the entire state of Arizona). If Wal-Mart can make it here, Wal-Mart can make it anywhere. That was the reason the store’s first 24-hour pharmacy was tested in the Metroplex, along with Walmart.com’s site-to-store delivery service and the first “environmentally friendly” supercenter. As the mega-retailer prepares to up the ante, West Plano could change the landscape of the big-box wars.

ON A RECENT FRIDAY AFTERNOON, Gus Whitcomb, Wal-Mart’s regional spokesperson, served as a tour guide for the media through the new store. He spoke in perfect paragraphs, and, perhaps due to his confident bearing, he bore some physical resemblance to Simon Cowell, the American Idol judge. Unlike Simon, Gus is an undeniably positive person. He sprinkled the word “opportunity” into his pro-customer chorus throughout the tour. Shoppers may have “an opportunity to purchase something for their pet” or “the opportunity to select from a wide range of teas.” Employees may have “an opportunity, during a peak period and only a peak period, to bring an additional associate up so the cashier won’t need to bag.” Gus had heard a complaint from a seriously peeved woman that Plano shoppers expected quality service—and that included tag-team checkout. Gus evinced such reverence for “the customer”—nut job or no—that she seemed to take on mystical qualities. Rarely do the white-haired ladies in the laundry detergent section have such luster.

Even without a guide, losing one’s way would be impossible in this store. The aisles are wide enough to drive a Hummer through. Avocado-green signs in the grocery section delineate pork from seafood, and various shades of royal-blue signage guide shoppers through the general merchandise. (Smiley, Wal-Mart’s trademark yellow happy face, is noticeably absent; theories abound.) Most everything in the store is less than eight feet high so that the “Electronics” sign, for example, in the back of the store, can be seen clearly from the front entrance without towers of shoe boxes and laundry hampers blocking it. And some areas have been retired, including guns and ammo (Gus said the folks in West Plano aren’t big hunters), fabric (they don’t sew their own clothes), and layaway (they use cash or charge).

In their stead, Wal-Mart showcases sections such as wine to tempt the upscale customer—an experiment that results in an interesting juxtaposition of high and low culture. The $418.57 bottle of 2000 Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases, Saint-Julien, found in the front section of the store on the faux-wood flooring among 1,200 other wine selections, stands near the big old 1.5 liter of Gallo and a series of “wines” that come in bright colors. Near a sushi bar, where, Gus pointed out, you can also find “the regular supply of things you’d find here from a seafood perspective,” a huge space dedicated to Pop-Tarts has its own classy-looking sign: “Toaster Pastries.” A dozen red roses with glitter-covered baby’s breath are held in a plastic wrap

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