By  on July 18, 2006

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Wal-Mart provided a glimpse of its urban future on Monday.

The world's largest retailer, which wants to eventually open a store in New York, is set on Wednesday to launch a 179,731-square-foot, two-floor unit in this suburb of more than 55,000 people just north of the city.

The merchandise tilts toward more upscale items than the average Wal-Mart, including marquise-shaped Keepsake diamond rings for $598.

And the neighborhood has the whiff of luxury, too. The store is just a block from The Ritz-Carlton hotel at 221 Main Street. The Galleria at White Plains, an 885,000-square-foot urban enclosed mall on Main Street, is several blocks away and The Westchester mall, with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, is half a mile away.

Wal-Mart's main rival, Target, has a 150,000-square-foot store across the street.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart has reached saturation in many rural areas, where it has its roots, and is seeking to expand in cities, including New York, despite being rebuffed by opponents, including elected officials. They cite Wal-Mart's antiunion stance and criticize employee health benefits and the impact on small businesses, among other issues.

As rising energy prices and higher interest rates squeeze core customers, Wal-Mart also has sought to appeal to shoppers by providing more luxury items, opening a store in Plano, Tex., recently that features expensive wines and gourmet food.

"This is one of the few stores in the company that's in a downtown urban setting," said Calvin Lechliter, store manager. "This is the store [Wal-Mart executives] are hoping to show people as an example of a store that can work in New York City."

"A lot of attention will be placed on this store because it's one of the few urban units in the chain," said Steven Restivo, a company spokesman. "Wal-Mart isn't known for having a downtown urban experience."

The White Plains Wal-Mart, which occupies a former Sears department store, fits seamlessly into the streetscape. Sears moved into The Galleria.

"Did you see my sign? Isn't it cool?" said Lechliter, referring to the sign on the top left corner of the building, which is lit from behind. "I've never seen a sign like that on a Wal-Mart." Restivo said, "I love the Art Deco facade."The store is expected to draw customers beyond White Plains. "I think we're going to have a large mix," Lechliter said. "White Plains tends to have a higher income. The Bronx, Mount Vernon and Yonkers are within driving distance and on our bus routes."

Asked whether the White Plains customer will be more style-conscious than shoppers at other locations, Lechliter said: "We'll find out on Wednesday when we see how much of our fashion blows out of the store."

There is a large apparel offering with an extensive George display. Metro 7 was given only several racks, but Lechliter said the area will be expanded in September when the next shipment arrives. The merchandise on hand includes jeans with rhinestones around the front pockets and a chain of flower appliqués on the back. There are also sleeveless velvet jackets, black pants with silver sequin details on the belt and a fake shearling vest with a distressed silver finish for $48.94.

While the Wal-Mart unit that recently opened in Kearny, N.J., targeted Hispanic customers with endless varieties of Goya products, the White Plains store emphasizes fashion and jewelry. "We have some pretty high-end diamonds that you can purchase," said Lechliter.

Half-carat diamond-studded earrings sold for $292. Necklaces with botanical pendants made from yellow, white and rose gold were priced from $97.64 to $134.80, and 10-karat and 14-karat gold neck chains range from $97.64 to $297.64. Even watches seem luxe. An Elgin timepiece with genuine Austrian crystals looks like a Chopard watch, priced at $114.90.

Perhaps because the White Plains store was originally a department store, it has more of that feel than a discount store. Lechliter said the company has made a concerted effort to enhance the shopping experience by creating wider aisles. Risers have all but been eliminated for clearer sight lines. Wood flooring, which covers a small area in a typical Wal-Mart store, extends over much of the main floor.

In addition to a photo lab, vision center and Dunkin' Donuts with a wall of glass blocks, there also is a Regal nail salon in the store. There are 22 registers and three self-checkout registers, as well as registers in departments such as electronics and sporting goods.A large accessories department features costume jewelry, belts and handbags from Metro 7, George and No Boundaries.

Children's apparel from Mary Kate & Ashley and George for girls looked crisp in fall colors. George Baby now offers organic items such as rompers and short sets for $8.95. A green card on the display indicates it's an organic product. There are similar green cards throughout the store on baby formula and groceries.

Lechliter highlighted a department called luxury home fashion. It featured color-coordinated vases, pillows and picture frames in Zen colors such as moss, gold and brown.

A shopping cart escalator allows customers to move carts between the two store levels. A separate escalator transports the carts and is timed so that customers arrive two seconds before their carts. There's also a shopping cart elevator that delivers carts from the parking decks back to the store. There are six levels of parking with a total of 600 spaces.

The lower level contains hard goods and food. The store has the largest food presentation outside of a Supercenter — 16 aisles of dairy, frozen foods, canned goods and produce. "We're the only store that's not a Supercenter with fresh produce," Lechliter said.

The store has another first: it's Wal-Mart's only unit to use smaller delivery trucks because its underground receiving area is too small to accommodate typical Wal-Mart trucks. Executives are no doubt watching closely since stores in New York City pose similar delivery challenges.

There seemed to be little opposition to the Wal-Mart store in White Plains. The city's mayor, Joseph Delfino, is to appear at the opening ceremony and help cut the ribbon. "White Plains is excited about this opening and we are eager to have Wal-Mart joining our corporate community," Delfino said in a statement.

Restivo said the store hired 400 employees from among 4,200 applications it received.

The closest stores to the White Plains unit are in Mohegan Lake in Courtland, N.Y., Norwalk, Conn. and Airmont, N.Y. Lechliter said each of those stores is about a 30-minute drive from White Plains.

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