5 surprises at the new big city Wal-Mart in Washington, D.C.

Maybe its OK to give Wal-Mart some credit for chipping away at a retail desert

Published December 6, 2013 1:39PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)
(Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)

I like to think I've been in more Walmart stores in more places than anyone who doesn't work for Walmart, or one of its suppliers.

During 10 years of reporting and writing about Walmart, I've been to Walmart stores in 30 states, in four countries. I've walked the aisles of more than 200 stores, including one in Hawaii. During the last two years, when I lived in Mexico City, our front door was 103 steps from a Walmart, and I confess, I averaged seven visits a week.

But there are still new Walmart experiences to be had, and Wednesday, I had one: I went to a Walmart on grand-opening day.

The Walmart You Don't Know

Walmart opened its first two stores inside Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, a small one just four blocks from Union Station, and a larger one just east of Rock Creek Park. (A third store is under construction, three more are pushing through the planning process.)

On opening day, #5968 even had a table set up inside where you could sign up for Obamacare, in Spanish: '¡Inscríbase hoy!'

Both stores stirred up tumult and opposition in the run-up to Wednesday's ribbon cuttings. A lot of that had to do with the fact that they're in urban neighborhoods, as opposed to the cow pastures and outskirts spaces where the big box retailer usually develops.

The D.C. City Council passed a law in July that would have required Walmart and other big-box retailers to pay a $12.50-an-hour minimum wage, 50% more than D.C.'s current $8.25-an-hour minimum. Walmart said it wouldn't open if it were forced to pay D.C. employees $12.50 an hour. And D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the bill. A Walmart spokesman told the Washingtonian it intends to offer starting wages "at least $1 per hour higher than what is offered currently at Safeway and Giant." The average hourly wage pay for a cashier in D.C. is $11.28 and $13.86 for a retail salesperson, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gray turned out to cut the ribbon on the bigger Walmart on Wednesday. It's Walmart #5968, at the corner of Missouri Avenue and Georgia Avenue NW--that was where I went shopping Wednesday morning. It had only been open three hours when I wheeled my shopping cart in.

As always with characters at the center of controversies, it's revealing to meet the main player--in this case, the store itself--firsthand. Even after you've been in hundreds of Walmarts, #5968 proved Walmart, the company, is constantly adapting.

1. The big box doesn't have to look like a big box.

You can spot the stereotypical Walmart off of the interstate from two miles out, at 70 mph: The battleship gray sides, the band of red ringing the exterior walls, the vast landing-pad of parking, the towering sign.

The amazing thing about #5968 is that I've driven by it at least a dozen times in the last two months and I had no idea it was there.

It's chocolate brown; not a hint of Supercenter-gray. The front is a series of urban-style brick arches, capped by a two-story smoked-glass atrium. The parking is underground. The loading dock is tucked in back. There is no sign-on-a-stick. For the grand opening, a single yellow balloon floated above the store.

I drove into the underground parking garage and entered the store from below. Parking is free (a lot of stores in D.C., including an urban Target two miles south, charge for parking), and there are 344 spaces. Even on opening day, there were spots open.

You rise on escalators into a wide vestibule along the front of the store, a nice, weatherproof place to collect your belongings and purchases before stepping out onto the street. The actual entrance to the store has brick arches that mirror those out front.

But the feature that stopped me in my tracks as I stepped into the store was something I've never seen in any Walmart before: Windows.

Standing on the threshold, you can see a row of 30 windows that run the length of the north wall, along the top. You can see outside--the weather, the time of day--from almost anywhere in the store, except where the shelves are so high they block your view.

Like most modern Walmarts, the new D.C. store is sky-lit--the natural light is much more appealing than fluorescent, and it reduces Walmart's electric bill. Most of the skylights are utilitarian squares in the roof, but #5968 also has a steepled roof over the grocery section, and the sloped sides are also transparent. It's like standing beneath the roof of a greenhouse.

Just in terms of appearance, the new D.C. store is a reminder that Walmart is capable of appealing design that fits the existing landscape--when it has to or wants to. Just as the skylights have become standard, even outside the U.S., Walmart should never build a Supercenter again without ... windows.

2. The big box doesn't have to be so big.

This new Walmart has a full grocery section, where the prices are good but hardly arresting--California raspberries for $1.98, Colombian bananas for 47 cents a pound. It has electronics, health and beauty, a big toy department, housewares, automotive. On opening day, #5968 even had a table set up inside where you could sign up for Obamacare, in Spanish: "¡Inscríbase hoy!"

In fact, #5968 has the hectic, over-filled air of a full-scale Supercenter, including the classic cognitive dissonance of having the apparel section positioned across the aisle from groceries.

I'm sorry, were we buying panties or pickles?

But #5968 is just 103,000 square feet, less than half the size of a standard new suburban Supercenter. It's literally a Supercenter in miniature. It's much easier to shop in a smaller store, and it's much easier on the community and the landscape, too. Maybe building smart stores for cities could teach Walmart to build smart stores elsewhere, too. Whatever people say about Walmart, no one has ever said, "Well, that's a pretty good store, I just wish it were bigger."

3. It's okay to give Walmart some credit.

The Missouri Avenue store was jammed at midday. The novelty of a new Walmart always brings in crowds (the Washngton Post reported that 100 people were lined up waiting to get into the store before it opened, a la an Apple Store opening).

Three parts of the store, in particular, had so many customers and carts you could hardly pass: grocery, kids clothes, and health and beauty.

The reason is simple: This part of D.C. isn't just a food desert, it's a retail desert. There are a sprinkling of CVSs and Rite Aids, and lots of bodegas. But there isn't the variety necessary to do the kind of everyday shopping families require. Organized labor makes many important points about Walmart's practices. There's an argument on the other side--in the immediate sense it's a boon for people on limited incomes who get to shop there.

Walmart received 38 applications for every position. At Harvard, they only get 20 applications for every slot in the freshman class.

Walmart #5968 is built on a lot that was a shuttered Chevrolet dealership. No other big chains were moving to serve this community. Unlike in many cases, this store looks like an upgrade for the neighborhood. The shoppers I talked to--mind you, they were a biased sample group--were thrilled to have convenient access to what they need every day.

4. Opening Day is the best day.

Four Walmart staffers looked me in the eye and offered to help me as I walked the first three grocery aisles.

At the electronics counter, there were 13 blue-vested Walmart associates standing by to answer questions or pull telephones from the display case. I've been in Supercenters where I swear I couldn't find 13 service people on the shopping floor, total.

And here's another thing I've never experienced at any Walmart: Every single cash register at #5968 was open.

It's a standing joke, in fact: Fill a basket at a Walmart Supercenter, approach the check-out lines, and find that although there are 24 registers, only 3 are staffed.

That's the number one complaint Walmart gets from its customers about itself: The checkout lines are too long. It's so common, I have a standing rule about it: If it looks like it's going to take longer to check out than it did to shop, I'll abandon my full basket and shop elsewhere. (That means some poor Walmart associate has to re-shelve all the items from that cart.)

At #5968, there are 18 checkout lines, and on Wednesday at least, every one of them was open and taking money.

I'll be surprised if anything like that staffing level lasts even a week. (I'll check back in a week.)

Walmart says it hired 300 people for this store, and 300 more for the store by Union Station. It also says it got 23,000 applications for those 600 jobs--38 applications for every position. At Harvard, they only get 20 applications for every slot in the freshman class.

What I really noticed was the attitude and the competence on opening day. Every one of a dozen employees I talked to was brand new--none were transfers. They knew where items in the store were. They smiled. They answered questions--about the store, about their jobs. The cashiers--literally working their first shift--were cheerful and fast.

There are a lot of sullen Walmart employees these days, with good reason. It will be interesting to see if #5968 can sustain the hospitality and competence.

5. I'm back inside the Walmart Circle of 5.

The two Washington Walmarts definitely plug a hole in Walmart's geography, not unlike the lack of Walmart stores in New York City.

We live in Northwest D.C., across Rock Creek Park from the new Walmarts, and until yesterday, the nearest Walmart was 11 miles as the crow flies, more like 15 miles by car. The most convenient Walmart, given the demands of D.C. traffic, was 20 miles away.

In America, that's wildly unusual. More than 60% of U.S. residents live within five miles of a Walmart; 90% of Americans live within 15 miles of a Walmart.

Walmart #5968 is exactly three miles from our driveway. With the easy and free parking, it's going to pull shoppers from a wide circle. (The two new D.C. Walmarts are five miles from each other.)

Even with 18 registers open, the noontime crowd was so heavy at #5968 that it still took 12 minutes in line to check out.

It only took me eight minutes to drive home.

That's a whole new benchmark: It shouldn't take longer to get the purchases out the door than it does to get them to your door.

Charles Fishman is the author of The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy, the definitive look at a business, and The Big Thirst, The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. Read more about The Big Thirst here.

By Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman is a senior writer for Fast Company magazine, where he has been on staff for 10 years.

MORE FROM Charles Fishman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

D.c. Economy Jobs Retail Superstore Video Walmart Washington