Painting the church of Walmart

Lots of “normal” activities take place at Walmart so why not spiritual matters as well? Artist Brenden O’Connell has taken up the subject:

For the past decade, O’Connell has been snapping photographs inside dozens of Wal-Marts. The images have served as inspiration for an ongoing series of paintings of everyday life — much of which involves shopping, which O’Connell calls “that great contemporary pastime.”

“Wal-Mart was an obvious place” to look for inspiration, he tells The Salt. “It’s sort of the house that holds all American brands.”…

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

In conversation, O’Connell comes across as thoughtful and urbane. He’s well aware that, as a company, Wal-Mart can be polarizing. But “regardless of your feelings about it,” he told me back then, “it just is. It’s like an irrevocable reality that’s part of our experience.”

On the occasions that we go to church and then Walmart afterward, I have joked that we are visiting America’s two kinds of churches. This may not be too far from reality considering the number of shoppers at Walmart, its yearly sales, and the power of its brand. But, it is really that surprising that a retail store could be the contemporary version of a spiritual space when our country is so devoted to consumption and shopping?

The new Ace Hardware home is badly proportioned

Ace Hardware has a new set of television commercials where they argue going to their neighborhood stores is like visiting your neighbor. However, there is one big problem (beyond the fact that many people don’t know their neighbors): the house is badly proportioned. Take a look:


The bottom portion of the house doesn’t look too bad: a porch, front door, and a two car garage. But, then look above. My best guess is that the Ace sign displaced the actual window which then got squeezed in between the roof line and the garage. Overall, it doesn’t look good. The neighbors would not be happy if the house next door looked like this.

Despite the odd looking house, I like the sales pitch. I was at Home Depot to get five items related to gardening this weekend. Due to the size of the store and my infrequent visits (perhaps once a month or so), I had to ask where three of the five items were because they were very difficult to locate otherwise.

Walmart opens stores on college campuses

Walmarts are everywhere in the United States – but only recently have they opened on college campuses.

In January 2011, Walmart opened its first location on a university campus at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a half-hour drive from its corporate headquarters. Now, Walmart has announced that it will be opening a second campus location, at Arizona State University, with luck by May, according to Delia Garcia, a Walmart spokeswoman. A third location, at Georgia Tech, is slated to open at a to-be-determined time next year. “Walmart on campus is an opportunity to bring low prices to students, reach new customers and serve our on-campus customers in a convenient way,” Garcia said in an interview.

Garcia said that the products sold by the university stores would be “tailored to the on-campus customer, providing general merchandise, convenience items [and] pharmacy services,” as well as the store’s $4 generic prescription drug program. Garcia emphasized that the company was still “testing this format,” and as such there are no concrete plans beyond the Georgia Tech location. While the Arkansas location is 2,500 square feet, the Arizona location as planned will be 5,000 square feet. The ASU location will also offer financial and bill-paying services, and will employ 10 associates…

As has often been the case with Walmart, the expansion is not free of controversy. In an e-mailed statement, the labor group Making Change at Walmart criticized the company for paying what it says are insufficient wages, “while public institutions like ASU have faced painful budget cuts.”…

In addition, according to a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, the University of Arkansas (via the university’s Applied Sustainability Center) and Arizona State (via the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability) are “the two universities Walmart picked to create its ‘Sustainability Index,’ which has been criticized for lacking meaningful standards and appears to have had little to no effect on suppliers’ product manufacturing processes.” Rob Walton, Walmart founder Sam Walton’s eldest son and current company chairman, is also co-chair of the Board of Directors for Sustainability at Arizona State.

So what is the deal behind the scenes between the colleges and Walmart? The colleges would want Walmart on campus because it can bring in money. Walmart wants to be close to a base of customers who want cheap goods.

How does this change life on campus? It could make it easier for students to remain on or around campus if they can buy things nearby. However, it could also change local town life.

Do the Walmarts have to follow the architectural rules or styles of the campuses to fit in? It would be kind of amusing to have a typical big box Walmart near traditional college buildings dignified in their brick and ivy.

In response to emergencies, companies seek out more distribution centers

A number of companies are now pursuing a new distribution center strategy in order to be better prepared for disasters and other disruptions:

Major storms like Hurricane Sandy and other unexpected events have prompted some companies to modify the popular just-in-time style of doing business, in which only small amounts of inventory are kept on hand, to fashion what is known as just-in-case management.v

The shift has led retailers and logistics companies to alter supply chains by adding distribution hubs, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate research firm in Washington. In turn, the hubs are creating real estate opportunities in markets on and off established distribution paths, including growth in markets outside the traditional seaport hubs on the East and West Coasts…

Just-in-case is a response to the vulnerability of just-in-time supply chains, said Rene Circ, CoStar’s director of industrial research. Since the 1990s, just-in-time has made sense for many companies looking to reduce the cost of keeping large inventories on hand. Technology enabled retailers and manufacturers to closely track and ship items to replace merchandise sold or components consumed in production…

The tendency toward numerous distribution facilities runs contrary to a strategy that was common just after the recession, when some companies sought efficiency by consolidating warehouse operations, according to Bob Martie, executive vice president for the New Jersey region at Colliers International, a real estate service provider.

Consumers may not pay much attention to this distribution chains. In fact, they may only really notice them when major events disrupt them. However, the distribution system is incredibly important for the American consumer economy. The reason products are on the shelves when consumers want them is due to this. Companies argue more efficient systems help them keep costs down. Better planning can reduce truck traffic on local roads.

This article adds another twist to the distribution center story: there is money to be made in distribution center real estate. Perhaps quite a bit of money.

You need a McMansion to take home all the bulk items from Costco

Here is one argument for why Americans need McMansions: they need space to hold all of the bulk items from places like Costco.

But what I require now is a special place to house the mountain of junk I buy at Costco, because it certainly doesn’t fit in my existing house.

I suppose some of you reading this live in Tuscan-style McMansions with huge pantries that could hold the yield from a dozen trips to Costco, plus a few sheep and goats on the side…

My problem is that I like the bulk savings you can get at Costco. But I don’t like the Costco bulk. I’m not kidding: At this exact moment, there’s a case of water bottles on my tiny kitchen floor, because I haven’t figured out exactly where to put it. Cardboard boxes full of lunch snacks sit on top, along with enough canned tuna to last at least until the Rapture comes.

Putting away Costco stuff requires several days of planning in my house, especially when I bring my children, which I try not to do.

This would fit the data that shows while the average size of the American household has decreased, the average size of the new homes has gone up.

It would be interesting to do some analysis on how the space in recent homes compares to space in houses from earlier years. One way to get more space in a house is to simply have more space to start with. But there are other ways. Have more and bigger closets and take space from elsewhere. It seems like a lot of the new houses on HGTV have two walk-in closets for the master bedroom. You could also cut down on the “middle” space of rooms in order to free up space for other uses. Large living spaces may be nice but they could require more furniture and many homeowners may not use all that space most of the time. Another way is to have fewer hallways and more “combined” rooms. The classic bungalow does this by often combining the living room, dining room, and a kitchen as the main thoroughfare through the house.

The growing sales share of big box stores

In recent years, big box stores have increased their share of overall retail sales:

In the past two decades, the share of sales going to the top general merchandise stores has soared from 47 percent annually to 73 percent, according to an analysis of census data by University of Oregon sociologist John Bellamy Foster and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign communications professor Robert McChesney…

“In pretty much every category, you’ll see that the biggest guys are a lot bigger today than they were 10 years or 20 years ago,” said Lawrence Ring, business professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

The implications of retail consolidation are varied: lower prices for consumers, but also less energetic hiring of workers and a more streamlined economy overall…

Whatever the big stores are doing has been working: Walmart’s U.S. sales last year were $308 billion. Target’s were $78 billion; Costco’s, $59 billion; Sears, $35 billion; Macy’s, $25 billion; Kohl’s, $18 billion; and J.C. Penney, $18 billion.

More points of evidence in a long-running discussion about the value of big box stores in the United States.

Another way you can tell how powerful these stores are: how many communities will turn them down if a big box store wants to open in the community and provide jobs plus tax revenues?

A disconnect: having electric car chargers at Costco

The story that Costco is getting rid of electric car chargers in their parking lots because of a lack of use could be taken in several directions. One could ask: doesn’t there need to be an infrastructure in place before electric car owners would go to Costco? But I think there is a more interesting question: are electric car users really the sort of people who would shop at Costco?

Costco is a big box store, plain and simple. They offer bulk goods at cheap prices. Their buildings are bland and surrounded by parking lots. Is this the sort of place that electric car users would go? Are there people who would shop at Costco but wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart (and I assume there are quite a few)? From a broader perspective, the picking and choosing between the “righteousness” of certain big box stores (Wal-Mart versus Target versus Costco versus Sam’s Club versus Home Depot…) is odd: they all operate on similar principles though their particular implementation varies some. To shop at any of them is to encourage standardization and sprawl. This doesn’t really go with the electric car culture/vibe.

So where should electric car chargers be installed? A few retail options: Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. I suspect these would get a lot more use.

Historic Bethlehem, PA has character – but what about McMansions and big box stores?

The neighborhood of Historic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was recently recognized for preserving the community’s more historic buildings. And the mayor drew a contrast between this historic preservation and the (negative) construction of McMansions and big box stores:

Recently chosen by This Old House magazine as a Best Old-House Neighborhood, Bethlehem is one of only 64 communities to receive the honor.

“So much rests on the quality of our neighborhoods,” [Mayor] Callahan said. “We’re incredibly honored to have received this designation.”…

“It’s our character that has been recognized by This Old House magazine which named Historic Bethlehem to its annual list of Best Old House neighborhoods,” he said. “Here in Bethlehem, you’ll find no grids of cookie-cutter McMansions or big box store strip malls. Here…we have character.”

The mayor also took the opportunity to announce that the city’s proposed historic preservation plan has been completed.

The contrast could not be more stark: the community is recognized for preserving homes rather than giving in to sprawl. This Old House quotes a local realtor saying, “You can traverse centuries in eight blocks.” This sounds like a traditional American community where neighborhood character has won out.

But I was intrigued by this particular statement that Bethlehem has no big box stores. Could this really be possible in a decent-sized city (2009 Census estimate population of 73,088)? Bethlehem’s page on Wikipedia (I know, a source fraught with difficulties) suggests this is not the case:

Adjacent to W. Broad Street is the Bethlehem Plaza Mall, a 90,000 square feet (8,400 m2) enclosed shopping mall.

Outside of Downtown there are several other shopping centers.

  • Westgate Mall is an enclosed mall with anchors The Bon-Ton and Weis Markets.
  • Lehigh Center Shopping Center has Marshalls/HomeGoods, Staples, Giant, and Big Lots.
  • Martin Court Shopping Center has Lowe’s and PriceRite.
  • Stefko Boulevard Shopping Center has Valley Farm Market, Dollar Tree, and Radio Shack.

In Bethlehem Township

  • Bethlehem Square is a shopping center with Giant, TJMaxx, Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, and Sears Essentials.

The city’s own website emphasizes the local downtown (and nearby) shops. A quick search of Google Maps (“shopping near bethlehem, pa”) quickly turns up some of the nearby shopping malls and big box stores. The most emblematic big box store, Walmart of Bethlehem, is part of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce (with a link to the Chamber from the Bethlehem website).

Reading the mayor’s statement, I think he is referring to Historic Bethlehem when talking about the lack of McMansions and big box stores. Many communities are interested in preserving older neighborhoods, both commercial and residential, while facing the threat of sprawl. The mayor was likely not referring to Bethlehem, the full city of over 70,000, when saying the community has no big box stores: like many other American communities, Bethlehem has these. And perhaps like other communities, these big box stores are both disliked for their appearance and impact on local businesses and historic neighborhoods while also prized for helping to provide revenue for the city through sales and property taxes.

(Disclaimer: I have never been to Bethlehem. My primary interest here was to think about whether a sizable community could have no big box stores or McMansions. As for McMansions, I suppose one would have to search real estate sites or spend some time with Google Streetview to assess this claim.)

Continued issues for Walmart in Chicago

Even with discussions last year suggesting more amity between Walmart and the city of Chicago (and an earlier post here), there are still some issues for the retailer in the city.

1. Over the weekend, activists in Little Village, a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, said they think Walmart should locate one of their stores in their neighborhood rather than just building on the south side:

At a news conference Sunday afternoon at 26th Street and Kolin, Raul Montes Jr. said people could benefit from having a Wal-Mart more centrally located in the city, vs. the locations on the South Side, which are currently planned.

Montes says Wal-Mart would do well at 26th and Kostner, which has been vacant for years. Montes says he and others in Little Village have sent letters to their alderman over the past few months and have so far, gotten no response.

He says they feel ignored.

2. Last night, Walmart representatives presented plans to residents of Lakeview, a neighborhood on the north side, regarding a proposed smaller version of their store called “Walmart Market.” There was some opposition from the crowd:

About 200 people — many wearing anti-Wal-Mart buttons and stickers — filed into the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ to hear the proposal.

John Bisio, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. public affairs senior manager, said that although he recognized the citizens’ concerns, the smaller facility at Broadway and Surf Street would not interfere with the neighborhood’s character…

But many in the audience could be heard snickering at company representatives’ arguments for why the 32,000-square-foot Walmart Market would be good for the North Side neighborhood.

After the presentation, several residents overwhelmingly shouted down the proposal and urged Alderman Tunney to push forth the zoning limitation in City Council.

It is interesting to contrast these two responses to Walmart: one neighborhood wants a store while another is very skeptical and thinks the store is unnecessary and could harm the neighborhood.

But with big box stores wanting to move into cities (Target recently talking about plans to open on State Street as well as recently opening their first store in Manhattan), these discussions will continue to take place.

Target coming to Carson’s building on State Street

State Street is a venerated shopping street in Chicago. Prior to the construction of the retail stores on Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River, State Street was the home to department stores with familiar names like Marshall Fields and Carson’s. And now there is news that Target is planning to open a store in Carson’s iconic building:

Target will lease 124,000 square feet over two floors, but only 54,000-square feet will be selling space, the company said.

The retailer, known for its cheap chic, has been in talks for more than a year to lease space at the landmark Sullivan Center at State and Madison Streets. Carson’s closed its store there 2007…

The city has poured $24.4 million in tax-increment-financing to help restore the Louis Sullivan building, which also houses offices. Chicago-based developer Joseph Freed & Associates, the building’s owner, has invested another $190 million in the national and Chicago historic landmark in the last decade.

“I applaud Target for bringing this urban store concept to Chicago, as well as the new jobs and economic opportunity this store will create,” Daley said. “Target will be an important addition to State Street, one of Chicago’s most important retail centers, and will be located in one of city’s most architecturally significant buildings.”

The State Street store would be in keeping with the discount chain’s recent strategy to push into urban cores with smaller stores. Target recently signed deals to open a 70,000-square-foot store in the heart of Seattle and a 100,000-square foot store in a shuttered Macy’s in downtown Los Angeles. Those stores are slated to open in 2012.

“We look forward to preserving this Chicago treasure and blending in with the building’s aesthetic, said John Griffith, executive vice president, property development at Target. “A hallmark of Target is our flexibility in store design.”

As for Target’s iconic red bull’s eye, the retailer is still working out the details of incorporating its logo while still respecting the building’s historic status.

This announcement comes as both Target and Wal-Mart have announced plans recently to move into more urban markets. A few thoughts about this:

1. It is somewhat ironic that the stores like Carson’s and Macy’s (purchaser of Marshall Field’s) are mainly about sales from suburban malls while stores like Target and Wal-Mart, symbol of big-box suburbia, now want to be part of the city.

2. Is there anyone who is going to complain about Target moving into this iconic building? When Macy’s bought Marshall Field’s several years ago and moved into the flagship store on State Street, a lot of Chicago residents were mad that one of their iconic businesses had been replaced. Will there be similar concern about Target or are people just happy that they can get to the trendy Target in the middle of the city? (Imagine if Wal-Mart was planning to move into this location.)

3. It will be interesting to see how Target blends their image and layout with this historic building.

4. What does this move say about State Street compared to other shopping areas in the city? State Street seems to be an odd mix of suburban stores on a historic street. Couple this move with the ongoing saga of Block 37 and one has to wonder if there is any long-term plan for State Street.