Mar 21 2012

My Walmart adventure – a fieldwork post

Published by at 1:45 am under Uncategorized

Name of location: Walmart, 14030 Abercorn St, Savannah, GA
Time and date: 11:00 a.m., Friday, March 16th, 2012
Weather conditions: Sunny and Bright, 76°
I was unable to accompany the rest of the class to the Walmart in Central Park. I considered the Walmart options that were available to me and I tried to think of which of the three Walmart stores would most closely approximate the experience that I was missing in Fredericksburg. Both of the Walmart Supercenters in Savannah are free-standing establishments, not attached to or even near other retail establishments. Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to approximate the experience, I decided to go the opposite direction and explore the new Walmart that opened near my mother’s house since the last time I visited.
I remember when Walmart first opened in at 11701 Abercorn Street in Savannah, GA. It was very exciting for the local residents. I cannot remember exactly when it opened, but my best guess is around 1977. 1977 Walmart was nothing like Walmart Supercenters of today, it was more like a typical K-Mart of the same time – like a general merchandise store. Over the years, Walmart’s scope expanded and the company’s business practices resulted in relocation of many of its stores to outside of city limits. The original Walmart store relocated to a new and larger facility about 2 miles down from the original location. Several years later, when Walmart began expanding most of their stores into Supercenters, Walmart built a new, larger facility about five miles further down the same road, again, remaining outside of the city limits. I was very surprised when I went home just over a year ago and saw that they were opening a Walmart in the exact same place as the second location of the original.
Upon my arrival in Savannah, of course I had occasion to visit Walmart, (as one always does) and I was surprised by the layout of this Walmart. I didn’t take a lot of time figuring out the differences, but I could tell that this was different than most Walmart’s that I frequent. I decided that this would be a good place to conduct my fieldwork research. Since I was unable to find a place that was comparable to the Walmart in Central Park, I decided to examine this unusual Walmart and figure out exactly how it differed from the traditional Walmart supercenter.
I discussed the differences with the store manager who was on duty. She did confirm that this Walmart was a different “prototype” from the usual Supercenter. She was reluctant to reveal very much information, but she did tell me that the store was about 117,000 square feet. (By comparison, the Central Park Walmart Supercenter is just less than 200,000 square feet.) I will detail the other differences that I deduced as I go through a report of my observations.
This Walmart store is located on one of the primary thoroughfares in Savannah. As a result, the store is accessible by CAT (Chatham Area Transit) busses, but most shoppers arrived in privately owned vehicles. Most employees arrive in their own vehicles, as well. Like in most other Walmart stores, the goods are delivered in company-owned tractor trailer vehicles which are unloaded at specially designed docking bays at the rear of the store.
This particular Walmart is a free-standing store in a retail-zoned area. It is adjacent to a Kroger grocery store and a Nissan car dealership and across the street from Savannah Mall – the larger and newer of Savannah’s two shopping malls. The store is oriented oddly. It is perpendicular to Abercorn Street. I would be interested in knowing if there is some logic behind this orientation, because I can imagine no practical reason for such a decision. The store is very attractive outside. It has the brown-hues that I have come to associate with Walmart, as well as the sweeping arch over the entry way that reminds me a little bit of the terminal at Dulles.
The parking lot was nicely landscaped, but in a way, this annoyed me. It was decorated with several palm trees and pampas grass. The parking lot is divided by a concrete median with a sidewalk and I think this is what bothered me more than the landscaping. The parking lot was particularly cluttered with shopping carts. I found this particularly annoying because there were plenty of cart corrals which were strategically located. There was no reason for people to abandon their carts except for pure laziness. The store was particularly busy on the day I visited, and I’m sure this contributed to the excessive cart abandonment. Other than the abandoned carts, the parking lot was clean. With 18 spaces, it seemed to have excessive amounts of handicap parking, but I realize that these choices are somewhat out of the individual store’s control, as the required number is mandated by government agency based on other somewhat arbitrary data.
As I approached the store entrance, I noticed seasonally-appropriate merchandise displayed out front. To the right of the entrance, there were 6 varieties of much. Each different variety had the price very clearly displayed in large black and white plastic numbers. To the left of the store entrance, there was a long display of tiny children’s bicycles – 12” and 16” frames. As I entered the store, I came into a large, open vestibule. There were five rows of shopping carts queued up on the left and on the right there was a collection of wheelchairs and motorized shopping-scooters. There were two video games and a row of recycling bins, but conspicuously absent were any drink vending machines or video rental machines, like Redbox machines.
I went through the actual store entrance and I was surprised to see that there was no Walmart greeter. I have come to expect that I will always be greeted when I enter a Walmart store. Customer Service and the photo center were immediately to my left and a row of 24 cash registers was to my right. The front section of this Walmart store was the focus of most of the differences in this store and the Walmart Supercenters. The goal of a supercenter is truly to provide a one-stop shopping experience. This Walmart store had a Subway restaurant up front, but conspicuously absent were: a full-service bank, a hair salon, a nail salon, an optometrist and an eyeglasses store. Upon closer inspection of the store, I realized that this particular Walmart also lacked an outside lawn and garden area, an auto and tire center and a gas station. While it did boast a full service pharmacy, it lacked a drive-up pharmacy window.
The shoppers in the store represented a very broad demographic and a very diverse group of shoppers. As I mentioned, the store was particularly busy the day I visited. On Saturday, Savannah was the site of a VERY large St. Patrick’s Day celebration. At last report, they were expecting a million spectators and participants downtown. Many of the shoppers appeared to be visitors in town for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities and were in the store purchasing celebratory paraphernalia or snacks or items they had forgotten when they left home. Outside of that, there were plenty of people there for more routine shopping excursions. I saw people of all ages, sizes, shapes, colors, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. I saw black, white and Latino people. I don’t think I saw any Asian people (but Savannah has a very small Asian population). I saw moms with small children, teenagers with friends, pairs of men (buddies), solitary shoppers and large gaggles of shoppers. It really was a very diverse group of shoppers. Many shoppers were there for targeted missions, like: “I’m here to buy an obnoxious tee shirt for tomorrow” or “I need flip flops”. These people came in with a purpose, collected what they came for, checked out and left. Others were there on longer, wandering shopping excursions. These people still seemed to approach their shopping tasks with purpose. They moved through the aisles systematically, looking for the items they needed. Some people appeared to be simply browsing, but they were not leaving empty handed. It seems they were browsing in addition to their primary shopping mission.
When I realized that this store was a scaled-down Walmart, I fully expected to find that there would be fewer groceries, but this was not the case. This store definitely featured a full-service grocery store. The grocery section also featured a full-service bakery, deli and hot-deli. The layout of the grocery section was different than I am accustomed to. The produce section was right up front, which was as I expected, but along the front-most wall of the store was the bread display. I suppose this was not illogical, as it was right next to the bakery, but it was different than I was accustomed to. Closer to the left hand wall of the store was the fresh meat section. The back side of this row of refrigerator cases housed all of the prepared meat, like lunch meats, bacon and sausages. The other side of this aisle had dairy products like Sour Cream, refrigerator biscuits and pie crusts and cheese. The next few aisles were freezer cases and then the aisles transitioned to regular grocery aisles.
Along the far left-hand wall of the store was another set of refrigerator cases with dairy products like yogurt and pudding. Next to that were the glass-doored dairy cases containing the milk, OJ, coffee creamers and other such beverages. Further along that wall towards the back of the store were refrigerated cases of cold beer and other chilled alcoholic beverages.
All of the grocery products were displayed very logically, grouped with like items. The shelves throughout the grocery section were a uniform height of about 6-½ feet and all had five uniformly spaced shelves. Everything that I looked at was clearly priced – not on the item, but with a printed yellow tag below the item (the name of the item as well as the price was visible so shoppers could be certain they were looking at the correct price for the item). Any product that was displayed on and endcap, a floor display or in a dump bin was very clearly price-marked with the same large black and white numbers as the mulch out front. I find this particularly helpful as a shopper. (Additionally, a number of UPC scanners are posted throughout the store where shoppers can look up that information if they are unsure of the price of an item.)
Next to the grocery section was the pharmacy and health and beauty section. This section appeared to have a somewhat smaller selection of products than its Supercenter counterparts. The smaller selection was not really noticeable here, though, unless you were specifically examining the selection. Everything that one could reasonably need to exist/subsist was available.
As I moved further down the back aisle that traversed the store, I realized where this Walmart store really cut down their inventory. This store had a very small selection of clothing and shoes. I didn’t measure it with a tape measure or anything, but I did mentally walk it off specifically to estimate the size of this section and the space that held all of the store’s clothing and shoes was approximately 25 feet deep and 90 feet long. The clothing section was also completely linear, starting with women’s, progressing to shoes, through girls’, babies’ and boys’ and finishing with men’s. This rectangular section was on the right-hand side of the back aisle. The clothing was displayed quite differently than I am accustomed to seeing. Instead of the usual 4-½ foot high hanging racks, the clothing section had 6-½ foot tall walls on which clothing hung from long pegs. This gave the clothing section a very claustrophobic feel. It also made sorting through the available clothing more difficult because as opposed to being able to slide the merchandise left or right to look for a particular size, you had to slide it up and down angled pegs, which wasn’t easy. Each section had two low display tables, but the way the rest of the merchandise was displayed made these tables look like an afterthought and kind of pointless.
Down the center of the back aisle, all of the clearance merchandise was displayed on tall hanging racks. I thought this was an interesting way to group it all and make it readily identifiable as different in some way from the other merchandise.
To the left of the back aisle were pet supplies, cleaning supplies, kitchen ware, home décor and books. These sections featured a somewhat scaled down merchandise selection, but not as noticeably slim as the clothing sections. In the back right corner of the store was the electronics section. It appeared to be as robust as any other Walmart I’d ever been in.
The far right-hand wall of the store was a condensed section containing auto care products, hardware, do-it-yourself materials, a very small paint selection, and a couple of aisles of home repair supplies. Towards the front on this wall was an aisle of fishing supplies, camping gear, and a very small selection of sporting goods. While this store carried some of the peripheral gear, they did not sell guns or bows.
The last section of the store that I looked at would have been one of the first I saw, had I not turned left and gone into the grocery section first. The front section of the store was about the same size as the clothing section to which it was adjacent – about 90 yards long by 25 yards deep. From right to left, this section displayed stationery and greeting cards and wrapping paper, home office supplies, several aisles of toys and games and finally a sizeable selection of seasonal merchandise. Right now, this area displays a decent selection of yard and gardening supplies. I correctly assumed that during the off-season, these products aren’t displayed at all in this store. Finally, to the farthest left (and therefore closest to the front door) was the most transient seasonal merchandise, like spring and Easter decorations and supplies and St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia.
The public bathrooms were in the front right-hand corner of the store, which was a bit unusual to me. Usually, they are more centrally located. Once inside the bathrooms, they looked just like every other Walmart bathroom, with the weird, wavy sinks. The bathrooms were clean and well-stocked. On the end of the store near the bathrooms, I did finally find the Redbox machine, as well as a Coinstar machine and a tiny, mobile Jackson-Hewitt Tax Preparation office.
All of the employees I interacted with were extremely polite and helpful, except for the manager. She seemed to think I was “up to something!” Maybe she thought I worked for Target.
I liked this Walmart store. I think it was a wise move for Walmart and I think this store will fill a niche. Travelling down to the other Walmart Supercenter was at least a 30-minute undertaking. This one is much closer to residential areas on the south side of Savannah. I think it’s really good that this store focuses on needs vs. wants. This store realistically has everything that a shopper needs to satisfy basic (and maybe not so basic) living. I’m eager to see if Walmart opens more stores like this one.

– Sara

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