BOSTON — Is Wal-Mart looking to buy warehouse retailer BJ’s Wholesale Club? And if it were, would getting a piece of the New England club market be worth the risk of raising red flags with the Federal Trade Commission?
Most analysts were surprised and skeptical by the speculation, which surfaced Thursday and sent BJ’s stock up 6 percent by market close on Friday, to $13.92.
Spokeswomen for BJ’s and Sam’s Club declined to comment. Natick, Mass.-based BJ’s competes with Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club division.
BJ’s has 140 stores, 31 of which are in New England. Five additional locations will open this year, according to the spokeswoman. In contrast, Sam’s Club has 14 stores and Costco operates 12 stores here.
Darrel Rigby, head of Bain Consulting’s global retail practice, called the speculation “irresistible.”
“Even if it’s not true, it should be,” he said. “BJ’s needs scale and Wal-Mart needs good real estate in New England.”
But Emme Kozloff, an analyst with Bernstein, pointed out such a deal would surely come under FTC scrutiny, possibly causing a big hassle for relatively little gain.
“BJ would be nice for them to have, but what would really be the point?” she asked. “It wouldn’t be significantly impactful to their business.”
Billy Vigdor, antitrust partner with Washington-based law firm Vinson & Elkins, predicted the FTC would examine any proposal to merge Sam’s Club and BJ’s.
“They’d look at significant overlaps in store base by metropolitan area and ask whether they compete head-to-head and if so, would they constrain each other’s pricing,” he said.
And because Sam’s and BJ’s each have significant food businesses, that would raise the profile even higher. The FTC has been active in looking at mergers between food and supermarket companies, he added. They’re also paying attention to big-box formats: A proposed merger between Staples and Office Depot was quashed on the grounds that the two shared the same format and, largely, the same customer.
None of this means the acquisition is out of the realm of possibility. Wal-Mart has been willing to acquire chains in order to grow Sam’s Club in the past; notably, in 1993 the company bought the Pace warehouse chain from Kmart. In addition, New England is an attractive but tricky region for retailers. It has some of the nation’s greatest population density with some of the highest levels of disposable income, but land for development is scarce and costly.
Wal-Mart shares closed at $54.17, up $1.19, or 2.3 percent, on the New York Stock Exchange Monday, while BJ’s closed at $14.08, up 23 cents, or 1.7 percent, in NYSE trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced a hefty 147.69, or 1.8 percent, to end the day at 8,351.10.