A view of a Walmart town center from the retailer's Walmart Reimagined web site.

Walmart Inc. has seen the future, and it’s the town center.

Not the familiar open-air mixed-use shopping center that became all the rage in the early- to mid-Aughts as a reaction to consumers’ boredom with traditional malls. The retailer’s idea is to make better use of its massive physical footprint while attracting a more upscale consumer, one that Walmart has been increasingly eyeing.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based giant’s new town center model will reimagine more than a dozen existing Walmart Supercenters, the land on which they sit and surrounding property — which in many cases is owned by the retailer — by utilizing square footage and acreage in new ways.

 

Walmart is reimagining some of its Supercenters into town centers.  Courtesy

Green space will abound in parks built in Supercenter parking lots. Walmart will flex its civic muscles by motivating other businesses — its strategy for natural disaster relief — by providing separate off-site locations where companies can contribute to local economies on Walmart-owned land. Container parks will offer vendors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the community and sell products.

Walmart will bring its reimagined town centers to eight Supercenters, including units in Rogers, Ark.; Springfield and Lees Summit, Mo.; Loveland, Colo.; Windsor Heights, Iowa; Garland, Tex.; Gresham, Ore., and Long Beach, Calif. More than 10 other Supercenters will get a “lite” version of the town center, including some locations built around food trucks and community parks.

Walmart created a stand-alone web site at walmartreimagined.com aimed at wooing retail tenants that includes  videos highlighting the locations. Long Beach is all about beer, with images of beer on tap at a bar, a keg being tapped, a rooftop beer garden, young people listening to a concert on the lawn, and a heavy metal soundtrack.

Walmart has cited potential tenants such as Pressed Juicery, Bartaco, iPic, Massage Envy, Francesca’s and Shake Shack. Renderings show huge weathered, wood-clad, freestanding food halls. Space inside existing Supercenters could be leased to restaurants, bars and food halls. An example of the latter located within a Supercenter showed trendy corrugated aluminum panels covering the walls and sayings written in neon such as “I Love Cheesesteaks” and “Foodie Paradise.”

Walmart wants to provide pedestrian access from the town center to the experiential zones it has planned as part of the concept. It’s a hub and spoke strategy with Walmart at the center and other food and beverage, health and fitness, services and entertainment branching off. There will be day-care facilities for infants and children, and pet day care as well as urgent care and Da Vita kidney care.

Vice president of Walmart U.S. realty operations LB Johnson recently told an audience of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Atlanta that the retailer wants the town centers’ mix of products, services, entertainment and amenities to attract more customers and encourage them to increase their dwell time.

In renderings and computer-generated images the town centers seem more like one of Caruso’s famed open-air California properties such as The Grove, with farmers markets, alfresco eateries, landscaped plazas replete with fountains, and playgrounds than anything associated with Walmart.

Walmart in 2016 said it would begin scaling back store openings to focus on growing its mobile and online channels, which it said would be the growth engine of its business in the coming years. The retailer that year revealed it would close 269 locations worldwide, including about 154 units in the U.S. that included 12 Supercenters and four Sam’s Clubs.

It may seem ironic that Walmart, which inspired protests from local residents and neighborhood groups against its massive proposed Supercenters — New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio in 2014 took a stand against the retailer — is bending over backward to bond with the communities where town centers are slated to bow.

Some new town centers will have mobility hubs that connect residents with ride-share options, bikes and bus stops, and select locations will feature pathways connecting to the community via bike or foot. Walmart also plans to host festivals and seasonal farmers markets at the centers, and Easter Egg hunts and Halloween trick-or-treating for local residents.

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