The capacity of a big box store with COVID distancing guidelines

Big box stores are ubiquitous in the United States today. From Walmart to Costco to Home Depot and more, they line major roadways and attract many shoppers. Outside of briefly considering how many people could fit into one of the buildings during Black Friday shopping or when seeing an empty building serve as a COVID-19 vaccine site, I do not regularly contemplate the capacity of the structures.

Photo by Alexander Isreb on Pexels.com

Yet, in a recent trip to a nearby Target, I saw a sign stating how many people could be in the store given COVID-19 distancing guidelines. The number: 672 people. If that is the crowd allowed during COVID-19, the capacity during regular times must be quite a bit higher. Here are some numbers for Walmart stores in April 2020 when they imposed restrictions:

Starting Saturday, Walmart stores will allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet of space. The restrictions will keep the stores at roughly 20% of their capacity, the company said. The average Walmart store is about 180,000 square feet. About 900 shoppers would be permitted in a store that size under the new restrictions.

From these numbers, the regular capacity for a 180,000 square foot store would be about 4,500 customers. The name big box store does not then solely refer to square footage; at full capacity a single store could hold more people than a small town or more than many full high school buildings.

Even during COVID-19, a large number of people are allowed in the building. I have been to big box stores during COVID but I do not think the stores were ever close to the reduced capacity. This does not mean I was not close to other customers; big box stores are set up like suburban subdivisions where foot traffic is funneled to main arteries (primary roads) and different sections have their own aisles (side streets). Still, there was a lot of room to operate in buildings that sometimes can seem to stretch out to the horizon.

One unfortunate use for empty suburban big box sites: mass vaccination facilities

Suburbs do not like having vacant big box stores. Yet, in the time of COVID-19, they can be useful for vaccinating large numbers of people. Here is the former Sam’s Club where I received my vaccines:

This empty building sits within a busy strip of big box stores on a busy road. The Walmart next door is doing fine as is the Home Depot a little bit to the north. But, this facility can now serve hundreds of people a day. There is plenty of room for the various stations necessary to receive the vaccine including processing paperwork, getting the shot, and waiting afterward to see if there are any side effects. Indeed, there is room to spare as it appears roughly half of the floor space is unused.

Of course, this was not the intended use of the building. It was meant to be a place of commerce, specifically a site where people could buy cheap goods in large quantities inside spartan conditions. The store would have generated a good amount of sales tax money for the municipality and other governments, particularly on weekends when the number of shoppers would lead to busy aisles and checkout lines.

As an article in the Chicago Tribune notes, these sites can be very good for this vaccination use:

Spacious buildings, ample parking and easily accessible locations make vacant big-box stores good places to get shots in arms fast. That’s brought crowds back to some properties left empty even before the coronavirus pandemic heightened challenges for bricks-and-mortar retailers as people stayed home.

But vaccination sites are only a temporary fix for landlords trying to figure out how to reinvent spaces as retailers increasingly look to smaller stores and online sales.

Once the vaccinations are over – hopefully soon – the push will be back on to fill these spaces.

A new suburban Walmart comes with tax revenue, crime, and economic development

How exactly does a new Walmart change a suburb? Here are at least a few factors to consider:

From its opening day to June 30, 2017, officers responded to 445 calls for service at Walmart, 166 of which resulted in arrests, according to records obtained by the Daily Herald. That means police were called to the store an average 1.2 times per day in its first year…

Walmart announced in 2012 its plans to close an East Dundee store and build the Carpentersville supercenter less than three miles away, prompting a lengthy legal battle between the company and the two villages. Walmart is expected to receive $4.3 million in tax increment financing funds ­– property taxes above a certain point in the area that would have gone to local governments — for the new store…

Though he declined to disclose specific sales numbers, Rooney said the new Carpentersville store has generated more sales tax revenue than East Dundee reported losing…

Already, the supercenter has significantly increased traffic and economic interest on the village’s east side, he said. Plans are moving forward for constructing a new five-tenant building and an O’Reilly Auto Parts on the store’s outlots.

To be honest, many suburbs cannot afford not to welcome Walmart into their communities. It is rare to find a user for a decent sized portion of land along a major road that will bring in so much tax revenue and provide jobs. The increase in crime can be chalked up as simply part of doing major retail business (I assume there may be bumps with other major retailers or shopping malls) and may not be a huge issue if it is largely isolated to the Walmart site.

In the long run, there are additional factors to consider including the local business climate with the behemoth Walmart in town (more competition for certain businesses), the opportunity cost of what else might have operated on that site, and the image of having a Walmart and related businesses. There is a reason more exclusive communities turn down big box stores and large strip mall areas. Furthermore, the fate of East Dundee could soon befell Carpentersville; if Walmart eventually wants a better deal or a bigger store, they can simply move and bring their benefits (and problems) to a different suburb.

As I suggested above, given these short-term and long-term outlooks, most American suburbs would choose to welcome Walmart. From whence the Walmart came does not matter while the tax receipts can be blinding to many.