Walmart is turning more of its firepower on supermarkets and dollar stores - two rivals that have been taking a chunk out of the mega-retail chain's "supercenters" - with plans to accelerate small-store openings.
The company said last week it plans to double the number of small stores it opens this year, to between 270 and 300 new stores. They will be a mix of grocery and dollar store-format locations.
In Charlotte, that could mean more Neighborhood Market stores, which are about the size of a traditional supermarket and feature Walmart goods and prices. The company opened its first local Neighborhood Market last year on Independence Boulevard, next to Super G Mart.
And Walmart has plans to expand with more Neighborhood Markets in the area, including in Rock Hill and Concord. There are currently 346 Neighborhood Market stores in operation, and their expansion presents a challenge to existing grocers, such as Kroger-owned Harris Teeter and Food Lion.
The new Walmart Neighborhood Markets also illustrate the diversity of challengers coming to the Charlotte grocery market: Two more Whole Foods, Publix, increased food in Target. The number of grocery stores appears to be outpacing the growth of Charlotte's population.
And the Walmart Express stores are a direct challenge to discount retailers such as Matthews-based Family Dollar. For now, there is a very limited number of them nationwide, only about 20. That compares with more than 8,000 Family Dollar locations.
So why is Walmart speeding up its small-store program? Because that's where a lot of the growth is, executives said. Neighborhood Market stores had 4 percent increases in comparable store sales last year, while Walmart as a whole has been struggling with flat or declining comparable sales.
"Neighborhood Market is performing comparable or favorable to leading grocers,” said Walmart U.S. president Bill Simon, in a statement. “Our small store expansion, in addition to providing customers access to a wide variety of products, including fresh, pharmacy and fuel, will help us usher in the next generation of retail. This will combine thousands of points of physical access with digital retail experiences that include initiatives such as Site to Store and Pay with Cash."
But lest you think Walmart is giving up on its supercenters, take heart: The company still plans to open 115 new big-box stores this year.