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Consumer Chronicles: Shopping in the Heart of Wal-Mart Country

New York transplant Mary McDonald goes in search of a new skin-care regiment in her adopted hometown in Northwest Arkansas.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 09/07/2012

I moved from Manhattan to Northwest Arkansas (NWA) in 2006 thinking the impact on my daily life wouldn’t be all that dramatic. I had a good idea of what the college-centric, smaller-but-cosmopolitan town life was all about and I had the added bonus of knowing that my remote-working job would keep me tethered to New York City. I’ve always been a huge online shopper, and knew any product would remain accessible at competitive prices via the Web.

This story first appeared in the September 7, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Working full time from home meant no morning hair and makeup routine, no midday touch-ups, no rush to clean it off at night. For a few years, my skin and hair never looked better.

During my first pregnancy, in 2007, I became addicted to Super-C Cleanser and Red Clay Masque from Jason Natural Cosmetics. I have never had more compliments on my skin than in the four years I powered through two pregnancies while taking prenatal vitamins, eating more natural foods and using my two Jason products with Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Moisturizer SPF 15.

Fast-forward to today and I’m past due for a shake-up in my beauty cabinet, which has become woefully bare. Bottom line: I’m not a twentysomething single gal with loads of free time and disposable income. I need a routine that fits into the realities of a 31-year-old’s two-career, two-kid, too-busy household.

 

As I start my search, I may be in NWA, but I don’t feel I lack for any of my former New York City conveniences. My go-to salon, Dead Swanky, uses Kérastase, and my retail staple stores Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn and Sephora, are at Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers. My creature comforts are, of course, attributable to the “Vendorville” complex of affluent, educated professionals whose Fortune 500 employers service the likes of Wal-Mart and other corporations headquartered here. High-paying jobs are available in sales, marketing, advertising, finance and a multitude of other fields, plus the cost of living is unbelievably low. A true shopper’s paradise.

I kicked off my search with a visit to Luxe Beauty spa in Fayetteville, whose new West Avenue location is on the route I take to drop the kids off at preschool. Proximity is hugely important to me right now because any free time I have comes right after dropping the boys off or just before picking them up.

 

Luxe is located below street level in the old brick Ice House building near the University of Arkansas. My aesthetician was amazingly friendly and knowledgeable and didn’t miss a word I said in describing my skin successes and failures. Luxe’s retail area has huge windows pouring natural light into the white-walled, wood-floored space. The ample shelving with neatly arranged and organized product displays give Luxe a feeling of relaxation, freshness and airiness. One drawback of the uncluttered displays was that several products lacked testers and, for others, testers existed where there were no products in stock. Many items were without pricing stickers and I had to consult several times with the sales associate.

 

After discussing my skin type, outdoor activity level and need for a versatile product, the associate steered me away from SkinCeuticals and VI Derm and recommended a Rhonda Allison Brightening Scrub instead. The 2-oz. size was $24 and the 4 oz. was $44, but she said the smaller size would last a while if I mixed it into my usual cleanser. No samples were available—always a problem for me when purchasing a pricy new product. I continued on to Malin + Goetz and felt the Detox Face Mask was probably a better fit. Unable to determine the price, I checked on my iPhone to find it had won a 2008 Allure Best of Beauty Award and I should expect to pay no more than $40. The price here was $38. Sold.

A reality of everyone’s life in NWA is that Wal-Mart is omnipresent in the way Duane Reade is in Manhattan. The pricing and product range at Wal-Mart definitely has me hooked and there literally is a store every few minutes as you drive through town. I live in a sweet spot of Wal-Martopia, near the corporate headquarters where the “on Campus” and “Neighborhood Market” store iterations are within minutes of my house. I rarely have to venture to the big-box Supercenters that are 5 miles north and south of my home because my everyday needs are met by the smaller, more conveniently located test stores.

My first stop was the year-old Wal-Mart on Campus concept store at 616 North Garland Avenue on the University of Arkansas campus. The 3,500-square-foot store is roughly 2 percent of the size of a typical Supercenter, but it carries many need-now items a mom has on her list—sunscreen, mascara and eyeliner, plus pharmacy, milk, bananas and a wireless mouse. I’d never shopped the two aisles of beauty and cosmetics before, and found brands like Neutrogena, Olay and Simple well represented among the ample stock of Wal-Mart’s Equate products. I picked up a pack of Simple’s 25 Cleansing Facial Wipes for $4.97 as well as Swisspers’ 50 exfoliating cotton rounds for $2.17. The store’s color palette is nearly all gray with temporary flooring tiles and overpowering industrial lighting despite a wall of glass at the front. The cramped shelving and narrow aisles are not what you see in newly renovated Supercenters or newly built Neighborhood Markets, so it’s pretty clear this concept is a work in progress, focused more on product assortment, size and location than a pleasant shopping experience. The limited cosmetics assortment surprised me, given the thousands of college women living in the dorms directly across the street.

A few days later I visited the beauty aisles of Wal-Mart’s Market store at 3475 West Black Forest Drive in Fayetteville while my older son attended karate class across the street. I pass the store five or more times weekly and am always stopping in for a small or large shopping trip. A quick pass through wide, lower- height beauty aisles turned up several of my usual bath and shower products. I picked up the Tree Hut Brazilian Nut scrub that I’d run out of recently.

 

My final stop on the megaretailer’s tour was the closest thing Wal-Mart has to a flagship, at 406 South Walton Boulevard, across from headquarters. The sheer variety of products and competitive pricing sucked me in immediately, and I spent more than an hour reading packages and cracking open caps for a quick sniff. I’ve developed a confidence in the stores in the years I’ve lived here and know I’ll find each product I need in stock and at a price that is either the lowest or among the lowest. I settled on Neutrogena’s 1.7-oz. Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer SPF 50 for $12.97 as a replacement for the Kiehl’s 8.4-oz. Ultra Facial Moisturizer SPF 15 that runs for $54.63 with tax and shipping online. I also picked up Olay’s Regenerist Micro-Exfoliating Wet Cleansing Cloths for $5.97 to use on the go and Total Effects Lathering Cleansing Cloths for $6.97 to use at home.

In visiting the concept stores and seeing the look of future renovations firsthand, it’s clear Wal-Mart is making an effort to overcome more affluent shoppers’ resistance to visiting its stores on a regular basis. With its smaller and varied formats allowing for a wider variety of locations more targeted to the immediately surrounding population, I think it is on the right track. This discerning shopper is definitely a convert.

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