December 18, 2014

Elyria
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Chestnut Commons Supercenter the shape of things to come for Wal-Mart?

It doesn`t take long to realize that the 7-month-old Wal-Mart Supercenter in Chestnut Commons isn`t your father`s Wal-Mart.

Sure, the high ceilings and spacious 200,000 square feet of merchandise are familiar, but a second glance proves that this new store is a vastly different shopping experience and perhaps a harbinger of the retailer`s shifting future.

Many of the things that have defined Wal-Mart over the years are conspicuously absent at Chestnut Commons.

The cafeteria-style linoleum tile on the floor has been replaced by a smooth brown one and the towering walls of products have been lowered to eye-level.

“It`s all about the ease of shopping and about giving our customers the best display of our products,” store manager Bob Butler said.

The biggest change is in the home decor section. Grills, blenders and coffee makers are all out of their box and displayed on household counters. Although you can`t actually make yourself a cup of coffee – the appliances aren`t plugged in – you can certainly imagine it.

“It`s amazing how many people look at the display and say, ‘I have that counter-top,` ” Butler said. “It really gives our customers a way of imagining how they would use the merchandise.”

The changes at the Chestnut Commons store are just another step in Wal-Mart`s continuous effort to improve its appeal, according to Mia Masten, Midwest director of corporate affairs.

For years, big-box Wal-Mart stores have essentially been serving as outlets for the retailer`s inexpensive goods. Recently, though, Wal-Mart has begun aiming at providing a more localized shopping experience to customers, including a wider variety of merchandise and some pricier items, according to Masten.

“We`re looking at new products and at different ways of setting up the stores,” she said.

And the Chestnut Commons store is among the first to take part. Before the new Supercenter was constructed last spring, Wal-Mart decided to use it as a prototype for the new direction.

Elyria`s demographics made it the ideal location for a Wal-Mart test site: an urban center with rural communities and affluent suburbs nearby.

“The Midwest is a great gauge of retail,” Butler said.

After Wal-Mart compiled mountains of research and data and applied it to the store`s construction, the Chestnut Commons Supercenter opened in April as one example of an entirely new kind of Wal-Mart store.

“It`s the latest prototype with all the bells and whistles,” Masten said.

Nineteen other similarly designed stores exist around the country and, according to Masten, the Supercenter in Chestnut Commons could reflect the future of Wal-Mart, which although known for its low prices, has been shifting its focus to offering higher-end and more local products to customers.

“Our bottom-line goal is to have our stores reflect the community,” Masten said. So, for a company that extended its reach to wrap around the world, Wal-Mart`s future is looking increasingly local.

Store manager Butler provided an example.

“People in Lorain County love Thomasson`s potato chips,” he said. “In the old Wal-Mart, we used to say, ‘Well, we carry Frito-Lay chips, so you`re going to buy Frito-Lay chips.` ”

Now, the Chestnut Commons store boasts Thomasson`s chips.

“We want the new stores we build to be sensitive to the community they`re in,” Masten said. Whether it`s in a place with a large Jewish or Hispanic population, Masten said Wal-Mart will put forth great effort to have their stores reflect that.

But while walking into the Chestnut Commons location might be a step into Wal-Mart`s future, there`s still some trial and error involved, Butler said.

“There are already new Supercenters popping up across the country incorporating and improving on the ideas found in Chestnut Commons,” he said. “In this business, you`ve always gotta be changing.”

Contact Michael Baker at 329-7155 or mbaker@chroniclet.com.