Thursday, August 7, 2008

Small-Format Food Retailing Memo: Does Wal-Mart Plan to Build A $10 Billion A Year 'Small-Mart' Empire?

The Financial Times is reporting today that Wal-Mart, Inc. had an advertisement it later pulled on its website that described the small-format Marketside combination fresh, specialty, natural foods and basic grocery stores to eventually be a chain of over 1,000 stores doing about $10 billion in annual sales.

Below is today's report from the Financial Times:

Wal-Mart sees Marketside as $10bn chain

From the: Financial Times
By Jonathan Birchall in New York
August 7, 2008

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, says the new small Marketside grocery stores it is to launch this autumn could expand to a chain of more than 1,000 stores, delivering $10bn-plus in annual sales.

The retailer plans to open 10 of the 15,000 sq ft Marketside stores initially, including four in the Phoenix area, where they will be competing directly with Tesco’s recently launched US Fresh & Easy store concept. Wal-Mart’s executives have described the Marketside stores as a pilot project, although it is the first new store format to be launched by the company in a decade. But a job advertisement for the retailer indicates the scale of its ambitions for Marketside, saying the format “is expected to start with 10 stores and evolve to between 1,000-1,500 stores with over $10bn annual sales."

At less than a 10th of the size of the average Wal-Mart superstore, Wal-Mart said the new stores would be aimed at “the needs of a time-starved, higher-income consumer that is interested in convenience and premium fresh, natural and organic offerings.”

The approach contrasts with Wal-Mart’s experience with the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market stores it launched 10 years ago, which are about the size of a traditional US supermarket.

In response to an inquiry from the Financial Times, Wal-Mart stressed the Arizona stores were a pilot project. The retailer subsequently removed from its website the job advert that included the more ambitious targets.

Wal-Mart’s superstores are built around high volume and low cost, and the group has faced challenges in adapting to the supermarket-sized Neighborhood Market stores it launched in 1998, opening more than 140 outlets. The Marketside stores will require a fast turnover of stock, which could be a difficult fit with Wal-Mart’s distribution system.

Tesco has opened more than 60 Fresh & Easy stores in California, Arizona and Nevada since November and plans to have several hundred operating during the next two years.

Wal-Mart, the largest US grocer with more than 20 per cent of the market, is developing the Marketside format as growth slows at its 2,500-plus superstores.

The Marketside format is also expected to spearhead a broader drive by the retailer to improve its overall grocery offering.

Safeway and SuperValu, two of the largest US supermarket chains, are also experimenting with small, local formats.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Analysis

As our readers know, we've been covering Wal-Mart's Marketside format development closely as part of our extensive coverage of what we termed the small-format food and grocery retailing revolution in the U.S.

The Marketside stores, which will feature in-store, fresh prepared foods (and in-store seating for about 9-10 customers along with take out), specialty and natural foods and groceries, fresh meats and produce, along with a limited selection of basic grocery items, will average about 15,000 -to- 20,000 square feet--which is a fraction of the size of its Supercenters, which are about 180,000 square feet on average, and less than half the size of its 45,000 square foot Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market supermarkets.

The format's focus will be on consumers who desire quality foods at reasonable prices. The first four Marketside stores are scheduled to open in the phoenix, Arizona Metropolitan region this fall.

We started covering the Marketside format development last year, and have broken numerous stories about its progress. During this more than one year coverage of the story, we've developed some very good sources.

We talked to a couple of our Wal-Mart sources today about the Financial Times report. One of those sources, who has been very good thus far, told us the mention of an eventual 1,000 store, $10 billion a year Marketside chain was on the job advertisement online board. However, the source says not to take it too seriously, not to think it means plans call for such a chain in the near future.

Rather, the source says its an internal long range goal number, and it didn't belong on the job board website, which is why it was taken down after the Financial Times reporter contacted the company about it.

This doesn't mean Wal-Mart doesn't plan to be aggressive with its Marketside format--just not 1,000 stores, $10 billion a year aggressive in the short to medium term.

As we've reported, Wal-Mart is looking for additional Marketside sights in Arizona, in addition to the four set to open this fall. The retailer also is looking throughout California and Nevada (Tesco Fresh & Easy country along with Arizona), as well as in other U.S. states.

Thus far we've reported for example that Wal-Mart is considering signing a lease for site in Reno, Nevada, along with in various particular California locations for the stores.

The current poor U.S. economy also has factored into Wal-Mart's planning for its Marketside small-format fresh food and grocery stores, according to our source. That source says because the stores will be more upscale in design and positioning--along with putting an emphasis on fresh, prepared foods--the retailer is exercising caution as it is well aware of the current consumer trend in the U.S. to trade down to discount food stores like its Wal-Mart Supercenters.

This fact isn't putting the brakes on Marketside. Rather, its providing a moderating theme to how fast the retailers grows the stores.

After all, there is no need to open Marketside stores in the way for example that Tesco is opening new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores--about at a pace of one new store every three or four days on average--since Wal-Mart's strategy with Marketside is part of a multi format strategy while Tesco is engaged in a single format--Fresh & Easy--U.S. food and grocery retailing strategy.

Having said that, we are currently working on reporting about a couple possible Marketside store sites in California. We hope to write about just where those locations are soon. Like we said, Wal-Mart is taking a moderate, but still plenty aggressive, approach with its new, small-format Marketside retail development and format.

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