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Architecture + Branding: Few vestiges remain from basic big box store design as Walmart experiments with expressive new design language in denser urban locales

1-Dot-com bubble replay?

It feels like we’ve seen this movie before. US stock markets are making all time highs (ATHs), the Euro is making fresh lows against the dollar, and a Clinton is running for the highest office in the land. When the Nasdaq first broke through 5000 through the late 1990s into 2000, justaboutanything.com, bankrolled with enough cash to survive the rapid burn rate might have made it to an initial public offering (IPO), allowing the founders to cash out while retail investors took a chance on the next hot thing.

However, this time around, deep-pocketed corporations are snapping up these disruptive unicorns, and creating newly minted millionaires and billionaires. As such, old-economy brick-and-mortar retailer Walmart is making a huge splash in the e-commerce space by acquiring two-year-old online retailer Jet.com for $3.3 billion (source: cnbc.com). Lagging behind market leader Amazon.com, which generates $99 billion in e-commerce sales, and hampered by a decelerating growth rate, Walmart’s $14 billion in annual e-commerce sales attests to a widening gap between it, and its new nemesis (source: cnbc.com). The giant bet on a largely unproven startup is tantamount to Walmart’s mea culpa vis-a-vis its internal abilities to battle with Amazon.com (source: cnbc.com). For a company more accustomed to out-muscling smaller retailers with its size and scale, it is quite an ironic turn of events.

In immeasurable ways, the internet has challenged the rules of the retail game, and Walmart finds itself playing defence, as its ground-and-pound approach to crushing competitors is being neutralized with more regularity. However, it was not always the case.

2-Regional to national to global

Beginning in 1962 with a single nondescript discount store in Rogers, Arkansas, Sam Walton’s empire grew quickly beyond the state borders. Incorporated as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. on October 31, 1969, the company would open its Bentonville, Arkansas, home office and distribution center, and become a publicly traded company listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) within the following year (source: wikipedia.org).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Walmart would embark on a growth plan that saw it move from a regional player into a national, and then, international behemoth. During this massive expansion phase, the discount store format would become the flag bearer for the brand (source: walmart.com, wikipedia.org).

Averaging roughly 106,000 sq. ft. in size, the namesake discount store format brought together electronics, apparel, toys, home furnishings, health and beauty aids, hardware and more, providing one-stop shopping under a single roof (source: walmart.com). Free standing, ganged, or anchoring a mall, Walmart’s grey and blue coloured stores quickly became a staple in small towns across rural America and beyond.

Sprouting up outside of metro areas, where land was plentiful, relatively inexpensive, and urban planning regulations generally less stringent, Walmart’s drawing power meant customers would travel long distances to come and shop at their stores. By the start of 1990s, the growth into retail powerhouse was well underway as Walmart had since become the most profitable retailer in the U.S., and the largest in terms of revenue (source: wikipedia.org). Although the stores were somewhat unexceptional in terms of aesthetic, drab even, the convenience angle and the brand’s laser-like focus on offering everyday low prices, held wide appeal.

Oriented with the main façade facing the street, plopped within a sea of parking on a 15-to-20 acre rural/exurban/suburban lot, the discount store exemplified the big box design approach. Rectangular, long and shallow, the overall effort maximized the front façade.

DSC08691 WMT Walmart CA-ON-Barrie 35 Mapleview Drive West

Walmart, partial front view, 35 Mapleview Drive West, Barrie, Ontario, Canada

Largely lacking in the way of articulation, the facade held little visual interest short of the ingress/egress point. The single entrance/exit point created a natural bottleneck, which helped to orient customers towards one point along the long facade. Nested within the facade, an entrance vestibule was bookended by twin pilasters. Upon arrival, there was little guesswork for customers to discern where to enter the Walmart discount store.

DSC08693 WMT Walmart CA-ON-Barrie 35 Mapleview Drive West

Walmart, front entrance vestibule, 35 Mapleview Drive West, Barrie, Ontario, Canada

Generally devoid of window openings, displaying near zero storefront transparency, the entrance vestibule had the highest concentration of glazing along the entire front facade.

Dissimulated service and exit doors, required by building code, punctuated the facade and side walls.

DSC07627 WMT Walmart US-NC-Smithfield 1299 N Brightleaf Boulevard

Walmart Supercenter, partial front view, 1299 N Brightleaf Boulevard, Smithfield, North Carolina

Coincidently, the framed entrance component also served to break up the redundant continuous roof parapet. In some instances where the pilasters were omitted, a protruding chamfered floating headwall, signalled the entrance point. Alternatively, a protruding entrance roof/marquee, of a more rectangular nature, or combined with a prominent gable end, might signal the entrance.

DSC09540 WMT Walmart US-NY-Clay 3949 State Route 31

Walmart Supercenter, front entrance view, 3949 State Route 31, Clay, New York

DSC07634 WMT Walmart US-NC-Smithfield 1299 N Brightleaf Boulevard

Walmart Supercenter, partial front view, 1299 N Brightleaf Boulevard, Smithfield, North Carolina

DSC05535 WMT Walmart CA-QC-Kirkland 17000 Route Trans-Canada

Walmart, front entrance, CA-QC-Kirkland 17000 Route Trans-Canada, Kirkland, Québec, Canada

Free of superfluous items such as canopies, cornices, or lintels, the building’s principal roof remained hidden from view behind the tall roof parapets.

Constructed of concrete masonry units (CMUs), metal, aluminum and glass, the materials palette prized long-lasting low maintenance exterior materials. Additionally, wainscots and banding elements are used to spruce up the exterior and break up the height.

Straightforward, low-brow, and functional, Walmart’s rapid growth and multiple client impressions assured that the brand’s spartan trade dress became increasingly recognizable and seemingly omnipresent.

3-Articulation and multi-entrance

As the Walmart empire grew, a new concept store emerged that sought to bring even more products and services under one roof.

In 1988, Walmart Supercenters appeared on the scene (source: walmart.com). Averaging around 182,000 sq. ft., Supercenters operated on a 24-hour cycle, included ancillary services such as banks, hair and nail salons, restaurants, or vision centers, and added grocery and fresh produce to the standard offerings found at regular Walmart discount stores (source: walmart.com).

In several instances, existing discount stores have been expanded in order to match the Supercenter’s full range of products and services. However, where a full conversion was impossible, these expanded stores reflect a design that straddles between the discount store and Supercenter models.

DSC09539 WMT Walmart US-NY-Clay 3949 State Route 31

Walmart Supercenter, front view, 3949 State Route 31, Clay, New York

Being substantially larger, the Supercenters ushered in a multi-entrance design. Even though a portion of the floor area increase was gobbled up by new services, which would be housed near the front of the store, the length of the front facade was invariably increased.

DSC09314 WMT Walmart Supercenter US-NY-Central Square 3018 East Avenue

Walmart Supercenter, partial front view, right portion, 3018 East Avenue, Central Square, New York

DSC09315 WMT Walmart Supercenter US-NY-Central Square 3018 East Avenue

Walmart Supercenter, partial front view, left portion, 3018 East Avenue, Central Square, New York

In order to dress up the facade and reduce some of the length visually, the Supercenters introduced more articulation within the Walmart prototypical design. Adding plane changes and vertical edges into the facades would result in reducing the visual mass, as well as provide zones within the floor plan into which to tuck new ancillary services.

DSC11291 WMT Walmart Supercenter US-NY-Cortland 819 Bennie Road

Walmart Supercenter, partial front 3/4 view, 819 Bennie Road, Cortland, New York

Additionally, the main facade gained more window openings, which also helped to break up the long wall expanses.

DSC07180 WMT Walmart Supercenter US-NY-Watertown 20823 State Route 3

Walmart Supercenter, partial front view, 20823 State Route 3, Watertown, New York

The supplemental level of articulation resulted in a more varied mix of parapets and roof lines. Flowing curved arches, gable ends, sloped portions, stepped parapets, and long spans of flat parapets tend to reinforce the vertical breaks and changes in plane.

20150828_101618 WMT Walmart Supercenter US-NY-Plattsburgh 25 Consumer Square

Walmart Supercenter, front view, 25 Consumer Square, Plattsburgh, New York

Exterior materials still consist of basic, durable wall finishes, yet, softer colours including beiges, browns, and greens, have progressively been worked into the mix to replace the traditional grey and blue.

20150528_145400 WMT Walmart Supercenter US-LA-New Orleans 4301 Chef Menteur Highway

Walmart Supercenter, rear 3/4 view, 4301 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, Louisiana

Although the form factor and architectural identity of the basic big box store was ingrained into the company ethos, Walmart attempted to expand on it with the Supercenter concept.

4-Integrationist approach

Although locating Walmart stores in rural locations, far from large urban centers, worked for multiple years, the strategy may have been proven out. Time constraints, commuting patterns, traffic congestion, and a renewed focus on urban living have combined to exert pressure on busy consumers. Add in increased retail competition, and the convenience of web shopping, and some consumers might be seriously questioning the value and appeal of a Walmart trek.

In as much as taking over competitors locations blurred the once straightforward aesthetic, urban locations with smaller lots and multi-storey constraints served to complicate the situation that much more. Nonetheless, having already moved from rural to suburban, Walmart had to make the leap into the urban environment full-bore as inner city/downtown populations continue to be on the upswing.

DSC09101 WMT Zellers CA-ON-Hawkesbury 1550 Cameron Street

Zellers (circa 2012), partial front view, 1550 Cameron Street, Hawkesbury, Ontario, Canada

20160805_152630 WMT Walmart CA-ON-Hawkesbury 1550 Cameron Street

Walmart Supercenter, partial front view, 1550 Cameron Street, Hawkesbury, Ontario, Canada

Walmart Express, a smaller format store, roughly 15,000 sq. ft. in average size, attempted to bring the brand into urban locales (source: walmart.com, cnbc.com). However, the brand recently announced that it would be closing all 102 of its Express stores (source: cnbc.com). Approximately 38,000 sq. ft. in size, Walmart Neighborhood Markets, a grocery store focused format encompassing food, household supplies, health and beauty aids and a pharmacy, has thus far fared better (source: walmart.com, cnbc.com). So much so that Walmart is planning to open another 85 to 95 Neighborhood Markets in the next fiscal year (source: cnbc.com, theglobeandmail.com, bloomberg.com, usatoday.com).

WMT Walmart Neighborhood Market 570 W Monroe Street Chicago IL 1 https___www.google

Walmart Neighborhood Market, front 3/4 view, 570 West Monroe Street, Chicago, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

Results have been surprisingly uneven for the smaller format stores, yet, Walmart’s larger footprint discount stores have found success in dense urban areas.

WMT Walmart Supercenter 99 H Street NW Washington DC 1 https___www.google

Walmart Supercenter, front 3/4 view, 99 H Street NW, Washington, District of Columbia (source: maps.google.com)

Embracing the urban/downtown integration through non-prototypical designs, Walmart has seen their design game elevated. Fashionable, higher quality, community integrated, locally-oriented, visually interesting designs have replaced the rural/suburban big box power center approach.

WMT Walmart Supercenter 5929 Georgia Ave NW Washington DC 1 https___www.google

Walmart Supercenter, front 3/4 view, 5929 Georgia Ave NW, Washington, District of Columbia (source: maps.google.com)

Multiple public facades, a greater amount of windows, a broader materials palette, more color, the urban iterations are far removed from the windowless grey and blue bunkers of old.

Capitulating to a more integrated, vernacular, and inclusive design imposed in dense urban areas, Walmart has been forced to blow up the established playbook and start anew after years of imposing its will mostly unimpeded.

5-Retail future

Rural, suburban, urban, the future of retail is undeniably tied to the internet. Without ever having to set foot into a store, online shopping is exerting a profound impact on traditional retailing.

As we head increasingly towards a digitally connected, physically disconnected environment, where face-to-face contact and in-person interactions veer to nil, a store-less future is a possible end-game conclusion. However, a hybrid, combining the best features of the online and physical, could likely be a better compromise to bridge the chasm.

By making a push into fresh produce and grocery, which tends to need replenishment on a more frequent basis versus hard goods, Walmart has sought to create impetus for consumers to visit their stores. Likewise, the flexibility of Walmart.com’s ship-to-store option, provides another opportunity to draw consumers into the physical locations. And, with its sizable brick-and-mortar footprint, Walmart’s are increasingly within convenient reach for many as nearly 3/4 of the US population resides within 5 miles of its 4600+ domestic stores (source: techcrunch.com, time.com).

Nonetheless, early into 2016, Walmart announced that it planned to shutter 154 stores in the USA, 269 worldwide (source: cnbc.com, ottawacitizen.com, timeout.com). Operating over 11,500 retail units under 63 banners in 28 countries, the company described it more as a rebalancing, as it expressed plans to open another 300 stores across its various store formats and brands in the next fiscal year (source: walmart.com, cnbc.com, theglobeandmail.com, bloomberg.com, usatoday.com). From dramatic store upgrades, a massive digital push, investments in e-commerce, curbside pickup, and alliances with third-party delivery services, Walmart is making rapid adjustments to survive, and thrive in the new retail environment (source; techcrunch.com, obj.ca, time.com, thestar.com, ottawasun.com, ottawacitizen.com, huffingtonpost.ca, cnbc.com, sun-sentinel.com, usatoday.com, theglobeandmail.com, bloomberg.com).

Despite Walmart’s undeniable size and scale, it is not immune to the ongoing changes in retail. Applying a multi-pronged approach that focuses on the physical and digital aspects of retailing, Walmart hopes to position itself to continue to deliver on Sam Walton’s original succinct mission of giving customers what they want.


Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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