Monday, January 15, 2018

Former Walmart Express, Sardis, MS

Today's post highlights Panola County, MS, retail, as well as that of Tippah, Tishomingo, Itawamba, Calhoun, and Lee Counties.


Happy New Year everyone (and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today!), and thanks for joining the Mid-South Retail Blog for another year! We're kicking off 2018 on the blog with a brand new graphic: Lost Histories of Mid-South Retail! You'll be seeing a lot more of this graphic in the future, on both new posts and old ones (which will be retroactively incorporated into the series). Recently I've been getting more and more into researching retail history (as well as old photos to go along with that) of chains that no longer exist in the Mid-South (or altogether), and I plan to bring several more posts in that vein to you guys as I find the time to sit down and compile/write them, all under the banner of Lost Histories. This is one such post, with our subject being one of those aforementioned chains that no longer exists at all: Walmart Express.

Walmart Express began as a test concept in 2011, and was designed as a small-format, almost convenience-store-style Walmart ideal both for small towns which could not support a Supercenter, and for big cities which could not fit a Supercenter. The hallmarks of Walmart Express stores were their fresh grocery offerings, including produce and meat, as well as their pharmacies and fuel pumps. Below are two interior photos, courtesy of Walmart, that show the interior of a typical Walmart Express: a no-frills environment featuring essential groceries that often seem difficult to find at its closest competitors in small towns, stores like Dollar General, Fred's, and Family Dollar.
 
Image courtesy

Image courtesy

This post focuses on the Sardis, Mississippi, Walmart Express. When news broke in May 2014 that Walmart was coming to Sardis, The Panolian wrote that "Walmart still considers its Express format to be a pilot project, though the expansion of the format this year could provide the company with answers to a lot of open questions...Walmart plans to open between 110 and 120 Express stores this year on top of the 20 it already operates" - quite the expansion for something still supposedly in the pilot stages. The Sardis store celebrated its grand opening on Wednesday, December 17th, 2014, at 420 E. Lee St.

Perhaps the first sign of trouble for the still-experimental Express stores, however, was the fact that they were beginning to open under the Walmart Neighborhood Market banner - which was already in use around the country on stores more than triple the size - instead of the Express banner. Sardis's was one of those; see the picture below, courtesy of Yelp. Ultimately, it seems Walmart got the answers they were looking for regarding the concept... and they must not have been favorable, for the chain subsequently announced the closure of all 102 of its Express stores two years ago this month, in January 2016.


For many of the small towns that Walmart Express operated in, this was a huge blow. There was no indication that the stores were doing poorly per se; to many, it simply seemed like they weren't up to Walmart's standards. Belmont, MS, Mayor Buddy Wiltshire said, "There are usually several cars there, I guess you would call it busy. I'm not sure it's as busy as they really wanted it to be." In my personal opinion, that's what it boiled down to: the Express stores weren't performing quite as well as Walmart had hoped, so they pulled the plug.

To my mind, this echoes the scenario playing out currently with Teavana, a chain of mall-based tea stores operated by Starbucks. Starbucks announced they would shutter the chain completely by the end of this month not due to bankruptcy, but because Teavana stores simply weren't doing as well as they had hoped. For what it's worth, Simon Malls sued Starbucks, claiming these closures represented a violation of the long-term lease agreements Starbucks had signed (by which Starbucks should only have been able to close the stores in the event of bankruptcy or some other similar reason, not because they simply felt like exiting)... and won, with the court forcing Starbucks to keep its Teavana stores in Simon-owned malls open (for now). The small towns home to Walmart Express stores, however, weren't as lucky: all 102 stores closed by January 28th, 2016, including the one in Sardis.

Some towns chose to look at the upside of things; Nettleton, MS, Mayor Mem Riley noted that Walmart's arrival had forced Piggly Wiggly, the community's other grocery store, "to up their game plan. It really helped them because they had to do better." But there's no denying the loss that Walmart Express's demise left on these small towns' employment statistics and sales tax figures. And particularly for towns like Sardis, whose only other supermarket had closed in 2011, the Walmart Express scenario seemed to play out much like a coin on a string being yanked away. For three years they were without a grocery store, so they were ecstatic to receive one in 2014, only to have to watch it close for good a mere 13 months after opening - almost as if everything had reverted back to square one, except with the newly-added burden of a freshly-empty retail shell right in the heart of the town. Sardis Mayor Billy Russell lamented at the time, "For our little town, where that's the only grocery store we have, it really does hurt you. It's going to be a really hard hit for our little town." In addition, in keeping with the perception that Walmart Express did not fail but instead was killed, Russell commented on the reason behind the closure: "I don't think they gave the whole concept enough time to see what it was going to do...It's not my understanding that it wasn't doing good, it was that corporate made a decision."

The quotes above all came from an article published in The Clarion-Ledger reporting the closures in January 2016. After several months of all the former Walmart Express stores remaining vacant, news finally - thankfully - broke in July 2016 that Dollar General had entered into an agreement to buy 41 of the 102 former Express stores, in 11 states, and reopen them. Moreover, Dollar General promised to add fresh produce and meat to its product selection at the stores, in keeping with Walmart Express's revoked promise to its communities. Lastly, Dollar General announced it would also reopen the fuel pumps at 37 of the 41 properties it had purchased. For the most part, the new Dollar General stores began to open around the country just a few short months later, in the fall of 2016.

Sardis's Walmart Express had the good fortune of being included in the Dollar General purchase, and that store post-conversion is what you'll see in the photos below. Additionally, all but one of the remaining Mid-South Walmart Express locations were also purchased by Dollar General; I'll have more information on those at the bottom of this post. A final thing worth noting before diving into the pictures is that many of the small towns that Walmart Express chose to build in already had Dollar General locations, so those stores had to relocate in order to open up in the former Express buildings... meaning that the net total of empty stores in the towns remained the same, at one retail shell sitting vacant. So it's not a 100% happy ending here. But at least the towns got their fresh groceries back, and a hopefully-lasting commitment from one retailer where another had failed them... so not all was lost by any means.
 

I visited the Sardis Dollar General (former Walmart Express) late in the morning of Friday, April 7th, 2017. This particular location is just off of Interstate 55, on the western side of E. Lee Street. Dollar General relocated here from their former location a tenth of a mile farther west, at 410 E. Lee. That store has since been reoccupied by AutoZone.


Most everything on the exterior of this store remains from Walmart Express - as it should, for that matter, considering that the store was only open for one full year! No need to change everything up on something that's still virtually brand new. All Dollar General did was remove Walmart's "Neighborhood Market" logo and stick up their own. The building retains the same "shades of brown" paint scheme applied by Walmart, as well as Walmart's "420" address digits in their logo's typeface (barely visible in this shot just above the Redbox machine).

 
Even Walmart's signature blue circular "cameras in use" signs remain, well, in use on the parking lot lightpoles!
 

Headed inside, here's our first view upon entering. As you would expect, the groceries are front and center for incoming shoppers, with the produce department being our very first sight. This is a nice change from similar dollar stores, including other non-grocery Dollar General locations, which seem to emphasize junk food instead.

 

Just beyond produce are the coolers where the fresh meat and deli items are stocked. I've paired this particular photo with a comparison one from this store's Walmart Express days, the only interior shot posted to Yelp during that era, since I inadvertently managed to capture what appears to be the same view.


Looking back towards the entry doors. Dollar General's added décor is simple but effective, especially since it looks like Walmart didn't bother with signage of any sort besides the lone gooseneck "meats" sign in the Yelp photo above.

 

A look down the store's center aisle, followed by a look down the rear aisle. Dairy, cheese, and beer all occupy the refrigerated units in the back right corner of the store where I'm standing for the rear aisle photo (with the latter two out of view behind me and to my left, respectively).


Just a random shot down one of the aisles here. As with the exterior, most everything fixture-wise on the interior here remains from Walmart Express, including the shelving, lighting, and refrigerated and frozen units. The only major change besides décor is the yellow paint on the perimeter walls, although I do believe the walls were also yellow - albeit a different shade of the color - during Walmart's tenure, based on photos you'll see later in the post.


The frozen food department, in the back left of the store. Of all the grocery departments, I'd imagine that this section under Dollar General is probably the most different from what Walmart offered, given that a lot of name-brand frozen foods can be expensive and thus harder to find at dollar stores like this. Still, they're making a good effort, and that's what matters.


Rounding the back left corner, this shot takes another look down the store's center aisle, but from the reverse direction as the one shown earlier in the post (left to right rather than right to left). Looks like there was about to be plenty of restocking taking place for the weekend crowd, based on all those stacks of merchandise boxes! At least, I'm assuming the store doesn't always have its salesfloor this cluttered...


Here's a shot down Aisle 12, home to $1 deals in both the cleaning and health and beauty item categories. Dollar General emphasizes the $1 part in particular because, contrary to the chain's name, DG is not a true dollar store: only at Dollar Tree is everything $1. Dollar General's prices are slightly higher (as are Family Dollar's), although I would think most everything is under $5 (but I'm not positive on that). Either way, the price range on everything here should be comparable to or cheaper than what Walmart Express offered.


At the end of that same aisle shown above, in the front left corner of the building, is the manager's office. I'm assuming this store must have some issues with employee scheduling, based on all the notes on the door. The handwritten message on the white board reads "Please look a [sic] schedule." The white piece of copy paper (on the right) reads as follows:

"NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO CHANGE SCHEDULE UNLESS I SAY CHANGE IT THE SCHEDULE IS MADE FOR A REASON

CLOCK IN AND OUT

FOLLOW THE SCHEDULE THIS IS NO EXPECTATIONS [sic]

WRITE UPS WILL FOLLOW
DO NOT CLOCK IN BEFORE SCHEDULE TIME CLOCK OUT AT SCHEDULE TIME"

...and finally, the yellow piece of copy paper (on the left) reads as follows:

"Requesting off is just that a request its [sic] not set in stone that I have to give you the days off that you request this is a job we are open 7 days a week 364 days a year from 7am to 10pm. With that been said [sic] just because you ask does not mean it will be given meeting the needs of the store is my first priority"

So there's that. I feel bad for the manager if he or she really does have to contend with such rampant issues regarding employee scheduling. Hopefully the problems have gotten better (or have been resolved entirely) since my visit!


With that out of the way, here's the view beyond the manager's office over to the left-side wall of the store, where we can once again see the drinks cooler that we saw upon entering. In addition to the two rows of dry grocery and general merchandise aisles that take up the bulk of the salesfloor (visible on my left), there are also a few aisles of health and beauty goods set up along the front wall, perpendicular to the rest of the aisles.


Looks like the total number of aisles in this store tops out at 26, based on that final aisle sign peeking out over that endcap near the center right of the shot here. (I've seen true grocery stores with fewer aisles! However, the aisles in this store are all half-sized; the numbering is just a trick.) I know Walmart Express had a pharmacy, and it had to have been in the front of the store, but I'm not quite certain exactly where it would have been. Perhaps it was behind the same jut-out wall that houses the door to the manager's office, or maybe it was even right on top of the spot where these health and beauty aisles now stand, and Dollar General ripped it out in favor of said aisles. If anyone knows for sure, please tell me in the comments!


This was the best view I was able to get of the checkouts without attracting the attention of the cashier. Thankfully, those bins in the foreground helped me to stay inconspicuous! I like the checkout signage, as well as the \\ (for lack of a word to describe it!) that transitions the white paint to yellow. A simple touch, but a nice effect. The white and yellow wall colors also complement the black industrial ceiling and gray concrete floor well.


Back outside again, and taking another look at the front of the building. You can see the "420" address numbers (in Walmart's font) a bit more clearly in this photo. The cart returns (not pictured) did not appear to be left from Walmart, but as I said before, pretty much everything else out here did.

 

A couple photos of the gas station now. On this property, it is located to the right of the store, near the cross-street entrance. (Depending on where a Walmart Express store was built, the orientations and locations of the stores and fuel pumps varied.) All DG did here was re-skin the pumps, and add their own logo to the canopy. I'm pretty sure the electronic gas price sign is a holdover from Walmart Express (and it looks like Dollar General's price was pretty competitive on this day, for that matter!).


Here's one final shot of the exterior of the former Sardis Walmart Express. I made sure this one included an angled view of both the front and right-side walls of the building, so you could fully see the main façade area with the entrance. The shopping carts are one additional feature that did not remain from Walmart Express, although the cart shed itself did. (I'm also unsure whether Walmart used full-size carts in its Express stores or not. Seems like those would be a little on the big side for these small stores, but who knows.)

Now that the stour ("store tour," for the uninitiated!) is complete, it's time for me to share that additional information that I promised you earlier in the post. My research revealed that Walmart Express only had six stores in the entire Mid-South, all of which were concentrated in north Mississippi. This Sardis location was the closest to Memphis, with a store in Walnut being the only other one to make the cut of being in the "traditional" Mid-South as defined by the local television station DMA (designated market area). The other four stores are all located in northeast Mississippi, which has its own DMA... but is also included in our blog's logo, hence why they're being mentioned in this post. In addition to being the only Express stores in the Mid-South, these six locations were also the only Express stores in all of Mississippi. A full list follows.

Store #         Address                                  City, State                     County
3856             410 2nd St.                            Belmont, MS                 Tishomingo
3863             2795 Hwy 371 N                   Mantachie, MS             Itawamba
3865             420 E Lee St.                          Sardis, MS                      Panola
3866             28191 Hwy 15                       Walnut, MS                   Tippah
4294             519 W Veterans Ave.            Derma, MS                   Calhoun
4296             7104 Will Robbins Hwy        Nettleton, MS               Lee

As mentioned previously, Dollar General thankfully bought all but one of the Mississippi/Mid-South former Walmart Express buildings. As Dennis Seid of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal's BizBuzz column noted, "Included in the purchase are five locations in Mississippi: Belmont, Derma, Mantachie, Nettleton, and Sardis. Dollar General has existing stores in these communities and will move into the larger locations that were once Walmart Express. Dollar General did not buy the location in Walnut, but it does have a store there."

Unfortunately, this means that the Walnut store continues to sit vacant to this day (as of this posting, anyway). Due to the short tenure of Walmart Express locally, none of the six stores listed above were captured on Google Street View while they were open (and some still have yet to be captured post-closure and conversion!). Similarly, there are very few pictures to be found online of any of these buildings. But a LoopNet commercial real estate lease listing for the Walnut store, since it is still on the market after all, is indeed available online... and has some nice bonus pictures for us to round out this post with! Check it out...

Image courtesy

Before we get to the LoopNet pictures, I wanted first to share this image of the Walnut Walmart Express while it was open, courtesy of the same Clarion-Ledger article linked earlier in this post. As with the Sardis store - and, I'm assuming, the other four Mississippi stores as well - this location was branded as Walmart Neighborhood Market instead.

Image courtesy

The LoopNet images all appear to have been captured either during the last days of, or very soon following the conclusion of, the store's liquidation sale, as indicated by the "store closing" banner and Walmart's signage remaining intact on the exterior.

Image courtesy

Given the emptiness present in the interior photos, I'm thinking it's more likely that these were taken after the sale had ended and the store had closed for good. (It's also possible that the interior images were taken on a separate date, too.) The above photo shows Walmart Express's pharmacy counter, as well as water fountains beside what I presume to be a hallway leading to some restrooms. Unfortunately I can't get a good bearing on where this is in the store to determine where the pharmacy would have been in Sardis's Walmart Express.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

These three photos show various aisles and endcaps on the salesfloor, all of which still have their Walmart fixtures completely intact. It is my understanding that Walmart decided not to remove these fixtures from their Express stores upon the concept's demise, and as a result, the buildings each come fully furnished for their respective buyers. This was obvious in the Sardis store with Walmart's refrigerated and frozen cases. However, the shelving in this Walnut store looks to be of a different color than the shelving I saw in the Sardis building, so perhaps it is possible that Dollar General brought in their own units there (either that, or Walmart used a different style, which DG kept).

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

These final two LoopNet images are simply some views of equipment panels in the backroom. I figured I might as well include them also, for any of you who may be interested. Oh, and one final note about the previous interior pictures: be sure to pay attention to the shade of yellow paint on the walls, and compare that to the shade of yellow seen in the Sardis store. As I said earlier in the post, Walmart Express also had yellow walls, but it still looks like Dollar General repainted them in the stores which they took over.

Image courtesy

Our final image in this post is yet another exterior view of the shuttered Walnut, MS, Walmart Express, this one courtesy of the town's own website. Here we can see the building in its current state: vacant, and a sad reminder of Walmart's quick ploy to string along small towns only to leave them hanging by the wayside in a matter of mere months.

Okay, so I must admit, Walmart Express surely didn't start out that way - as a devious plot maliciously designed to bring despair to small communities. But in the end, it does sort of seem like the whole Walmart Express concept could have been handled much better. Again, it's nothing short of a miracle that Dollar General stepped up to the plate and relocated 41 of their stores to former Walmart Express buildings nearby in the same towns, and added fresh groceries to their product lineups. But that still left 61 former Walmart Express stores vacant as of summer 2016. Hopefully those 61 are all able to land new tenants soon, if they haven't already. And likewise, I sure hope that both the customers and employees of these stores have been able to find new, close-by sources of groceries and income, respectively.

Want to share your opinions and/or any additional information you may have on Walmart Express? Please feel free to do so in the comments below! Finally, I'd like to end this post on a happy note, by relaying the news that a new Walmart Neighborhood Market - a true one, not just an Express store disguised under that banner - opened in August 2016 in Tupelo, MS... and of the 95 or so employees there, "27 [are] workers who lost their jobs earlier [in 2016] when the...Walmart Express stores were closed in [nearby] Belmont, Derma, Mantachie, Nettleton, and Walnut," according to the Daily Journal. Even if Walmart did do a bad thing by ending the Express experiment, they're at least doing right by those former employees by recognizing their experience and rehiring them again.

So that's what's been happening in Sardis, and all around North Mississippi, following the arrival - and departure - of Walmart Express. Until next time and as always, have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!

Retail Retell

Monday, December 18, 2017

Casino Factory Shoppes, Tunica Resorts (Robinsonville), MS

Today's post highlights Tunica County, MS, retail.
 
 
For our final post of 2017, I'm making good on my promise to branch out some and feature retail from a Mid-South county that has not been presented before on the blog. So today, we're going to take a look around the Casino Factory Shoppes in Tunica Resorts, MS. (Spoiler alert: there isn't much to see...)
 
As always, I think it's a good idea to share with you some history before we dive straight into the photos. (I'll try not to make it too long-winded!) Tunica is an interesting little area. Tunica County lies just to the south and west of DeSoto County, and runs along the Mississippi River. DeSoto is a highly commercially-developed area, especially the closer you get to the state line (i.e. the city of Southaven), seeing as how it is considered part of the Memphis metropolitan area. Tunica... not so much. The Memphis metro pretty much drops off as one exits DeSoto. If you're heading south on I-55, you enter Tate County, which is not as developed as DeSoto but still has its fair share of establishments. But Tunica County has no interstate running through it - only a state highway - and begins one's descent into the Mississippi Delta region.
 
Accordingly, Tunica County is a pretty, shall we say, quiet area. If not for the negative connotation, I'd also be willing to call it boring. It's not the people's fault, by any means. But Tunica is comprised almost completely of flat land and cotton fields. There are very few structures to break up the monotony. Or even trees, for that matter. Without a doubt, it fits the bill of the Mississippi Delta. And yet, if you live in the Mid-South - or even beyond the region - chances are, you've heard of Tunica before. So why is that, if there's not really anything there?
 
One word: casinos. While I have no pictures relating to them, I started doing some research on the Tunica casinos the other day, for I feel a discussion of Tunica isn't complete without a backstory on the means behind its rise to fame. "Really by accident," a 1996 New York Times article claims, Tunica in the 1990s was transformed from (literally) the statistically "poorest, worst-off place in the United States" to a gambling powerhouse. At one point in time, Tunica actually "generated the third largest gambling revenues in the nation, after Las Vegas, Nevada and Atlantic City, New Jersey," according to Wikipedia.
 
This improbable transformation was made possible by an almost-overlooked stipulation tacked onto a 1990 Mississippi legislative session regarding the installation of a state lottery that made riverboat gambling legal. The state lottery idea didn't pass, but the gambling one did. A short time later, in 1992, the first casino in Tunica County, and indeed the state of Mississippi - Splash Casino - opened at Mhoon Landing, MS. To most everyone's surprise, it was wildly, off-the-charts popular. Four others quickly followed in 1993, three at Mhoon Landing but the remaining one - the first iteration of a Harrah's Casino to open in the county - in a spot farther north, even closer to Memphis. A record seven casinos opened in 1994, most of which were located closer to Harrah's: the Memphis traffic was good, even better than the comparatively-isolated Mhoon Landing resorts had been getting. In fact, as more casinos continued to open in the northern area of the county - an unincorporated community known as Robinsonville - the remaining Mhoon Landing casinos all either relocated or shut down entirely. Splash, for instance, closed in 1995. On the other hand, casinos continued to open in Robinsonville all the way through 1999.
 
In all, Tunica County had seen the following casinos come (and, for several of them, also saw them go) within only one decade: Splash Casino, Lady Luck Casino, Harrah's Casino, President Casino, Bally's Casino, Southern Belle Casino, Treasure Bay Casino, Sam's Town Casino, Fitzgeralds Casino, Sheraton Casino, Hollywood Casino, Circus Circus Casino, Horseshoe Casino, Harrah's Mardi Gras Casino, Grand Casino, and Isle of Capri Casino. Although not all of these were in operation concurrently, that's a total of 16 casinos altogether over ten years. 16 casinos that, as you can imagine, drew in millions upon millions of revenue dollars from gamblers. In a county that had, for the years immediately prior to the casinos' openings, come in "dead last by virtually ever social and economic measure" when compared to its peers across the entire US. That's pretty impressive.
 
For all the casinos, however, Tunica still was not seeing much other development. Nevertheless, the county government was still pretty optimistic about what was to come. They envisioned hotels, parks, golf courses. A lot of these came true, albeit mostly as part of the casinos' ever-growing sprawling entertainment complexes. They also foresaw retail and residential growth. The latter, unfortunately, never amounted to much - a foreshadowing of things to come. But they at least saw some success in the retail sector. In 1998, news broke that a development company had signed a letter of intent with the owners of Grand Casino - Tunica's largest facility - to "build an outlet mall on Grand's gaming site, on land leased from Grand." Local media scrutinized the development company, however, and discovered they had a shady, lawsuit-plagued past; needless to say, the "Grand Casino Factory Shoppes" never came to fruition.
 
But in 1999, another outlet mall - the similarly-titled "Casino Factory Shoppes," which were also similarly-located: across from the Grand Casino site, rather than on it - came into existence. By the end of May that year, the company behind the project announced that "of the total 300,000 square feet in the outlet mall" (to be built in three phases), they had "100,000 in signed leases and several more tenants scheduled to sign next week." The outlet mall opened to the public on November 23rd, 1999; Phase II debuted an additional 60,000 square feet of retail space on October 12th, 2000. At the center's prime, some 39 storefronts were occupied by such national retailers as Gap Outlet, Pfaltzgraff, Etienne Aigner, Nautica, Reebok, Danskin Outlet, V.F. Warehouse, Jantzen, Healthtex, Vanity Fair Lingerie, Casual Corner, Samsonite, and more. In 2002, the outlet's first locally owned stores opened: 1251 Place and Silver Spirit. As late as 2007, an outparcel to the complex was sold to Waffle House.
 
The northernmost point of the complex, or the bottommost building of its left half. (This is visible better in an aerial view later in this post.) Occupied here by Casual Corner, with other retailers such as Samsonite visible off in the distance. Samsonite closed this and several other locations after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks due to a drop in luggage sales.

Under the walkway on the left half of the complex

This isn't the end of the story. But this is where the pictures start to come in. Above are two images of the Casino Factory Shoppes early on in their lifetime, straight from their architect, Jackson, MS-based Canizaro Trigiani. Below, additional images, taken from various sources (unknown unless otherwise credited), of the complex during the 2000s.
  
The monument sign at the complex's side entrance

Old Navy, in the left half of the outlet mall

Tunica Information and Welcome Center, in the left half of the outlet mall

Silver Spirit, next door to the welcome center and mentioned earlier in the post

CB Gifts & Collectables, another locally-owned store. Would later relocate to Horn Lake, MS. The owners retired in early 2017.
 
A view down a portion of the left half of the complex, with Dress Barn visible in the foreground. CB Gifts & Collectables, Silver Spirit, the welcome center, and Kitchen Collection are among the bays visible beyond that.

A similar view looking across several of the shops in the left half of the outlet mall, this time taken from a spot even farther south. In the foreground here are Factory Brand Shoes and KB Toy Outlet, with Reebok and Dress Barn beyond that.

Turning the other direction for this view, but otherwise taken from the same spot. KB Toys later became Rue 21 after the former declared bankruptcy and closed all of its stores in 2009. Image courtesy

Rack Room Shoes, an original tenant from November 1999, in the right half of the shopping center. (Thus, the right/south half must have been Phase I!)

"Fragrances." I'm assuming this was a locally-owned store. Looks like that could be Wilsons Leather Outlet next door on the right.

An overview of the right half of the shopping center. Anchors on the left are Carter's and OshKosh B'gosh, with Gap Outlet acting as the anchor on the right.

An aerial view of the mall, looking roughly northeast. MS Hwy 61 is the road on the left. It was only ever expanded to four lanes due to (and, as far as funding is concerned, thanks to) the casino traffic. Courtesy LoopNet
 
The high-profile sign for the center, including many of its retailers, as viewed illuminated at night. During the day, this was the same teal color as the low-rise sign seen earlier in this post.
 
In 2011, everything changed. The Mississippi River experienced historic, extreme flooding. Recall that the Tunica casinos all complied with Mississippi law, which legalized only "riverboat gambling." The loophole here was pioneered by Splash, Tunica's first casino; according to that aforementioned New York Times article, "The casino operators dug trenches inland and created ponds, floated in barges, then filled the trenches. The gambling floors of the casinos now sit atop the barges, making them legal 'gambling boats.'" So none of the casinos were actually in the river itself. But this made no difference to the floodwaters of 2011. The river was rising so high that every single casino in the county was forced to close down - an unprecedented move. The hotels on the Grand Casino property - directly across from the Casino Factory Shoppes, and by this time operating as Harrah's Casino Tunica (a final iteration, after two previous Harrah's elsewhere in the county) - fared worst, with almost six feet of water on the lower floors.
 
Determinedly, Harrah's reopened, but it never truly recovered. Citing steadily declining business, the parent company of Harrah's closed the casino on June 2nd, 2014. Understandably, since they are located right across the street (with no other casino as close by), the Casino Factory Shoppes were hit hard by this decision. Stores rapidly began closing up shop and/or relocating. Gap Outlet, for instance, moved to Southaven. A few years later, Southaven also almost wiped out the mall altogether, as one report circulated in 2015 claimed that the Casino Factory Shoppes were slated to close outright following the November opening of competitor Tanger Outlets Southaven that year. That rumor did not come true, but mall ownership did change. Below are images, mainly from Google and Bing Maps, of the complex in the 2010s, as compared to the 2000s photos above.
 
Aerial view from Bing Maps, which notoriously has outdated imagery. (Here at the blog, we often use this to our advantage!) The absence of the Waffle House outparcel dates this image to a time prior to 2007.

I know I promised 2010s imagery for this section of the post. But I wanted to quickly include these images first for comparison. Be sure to note how the storefronts are all tenanted in both this view of the left half...

...and this view of the right half of the complex. Some retailers are a little difficult to make out, but in the previous image I see KB Toys, Reebok, Dress Barn, et. al (which we all saw earlier in the post as well), and in this image I see Hanes, Nautica, (I think) Levi's, and Gap Outlet.

Across the street, this is the view of the entrance to the Harrah's (former Grand Casino) property as viewed on Google Street View in 2013. As noted earlier, it would close just one year later.

...And here is what the entrance to Harrah's looks like post-closure, complete with a "Thank you for your patronage and loyalty" notice. I believe the casino itself has been demolished, but the hotels are all still standing. For that matter, many of the shuttered casinos and their related auxiliary buildings in Tunica are still standing abandoned. More adventurous explorers/photographers might be willing to take advantage of that fact, but I am not of that breed of person, haha!

Fast-forward to 2016, and this is the view of the outlet mall. Already the scenery wasn't anything to write home about: this is the flat-land Mississippi Delta, after all. But the shopping center itself wasn't looking too hot, either. In fact, this view from 61 shows it looking almost completely desolate.

The road sign still had several retailers listed on it, but not all of them were still open at this point. You know a complex has qualified for "dead mall" status when it doesn't bother removing the placards of closed retailers from its signs anymore. Note also the sign for Keller's Pawn in the background: what once was a Covenant Bank location.

Things were so bad at the Casino Factory Shoppes, in fact, that Rue 21 had to have this sign posted to their door in August 2015 promising customers that they weren't going to close anytime soon. Despite this, they would indeed close by the time the Google Street View car rolled around for the images below, taken less than one year later in July 2016. Image courtesy

Entering the property and beginning at the right half. Not much left to see in summer 2016: just Wilsons Leather and Hibbett Sports. Gap Outlet used to occupy the rightmost space here; they closed circa 2011-2012.

Panning left, we see more stores, including Nautica and GNC. But the complex is still not nearly as full as it once was.

Rack Room Shoes and L'eggs-Hanes-Bali-Playtex

By 2016, Rainbow had taken over the former Carter's/OshKosh space. Looks like nothing between it and Rack Room.

An overview of the left half of the center, which seemed even more empty.

The remaining retailers over here included Kitchen Collection and Rue 21, plus the Tunica welcome center. Old Navy, which was also in this half of the center (but not pictured above), outlasted the Gap Outlet but was also closed by 2016.

But wait, there's more! As I said above, the mall never did close outright (despite the rumors) but its ownership did change. Previously, it had been owned by (or, at the very least, its leasing operations were handled by) The Prism Co. out of North Carolina. I'm not sure who the new owners are; for all I know, the center could be locally owned now. (There likely weren't many buyers clamoring for the place, anyhow!) As a final blow, all remaining national retailers - with the exception of Rainbow - closed up shop by the end of December 2016, meaning the Casino Factory Shoppes entered 2017 virtually 100% unoccupied. A May 2017 local news report wrote that "only 15 of the 40 storefronts here are locally open," and those that are open (again, excluding Rainbow) are locally owned and operated outfits. I visited the Casino Factory Shoppes on July 14th, 2017. Here's what I saw.
 
 
 
Beginning, as with the Google Street view images shown previously, at the right half of the complex. Hard to believe it, but the center looks even emptier than the year prior.
 
 
 
As we move onward, however, several occupied storefronts come into view. From left to right, you've got Super Bargain Furniture, Mattress, Rugs, School uniform and phones [sic]; Super Discount Meat & Grocery; Second Time Around; Ms Kitty's Bakery & Deli Soul Food; Tax Service; and (appropriately) an office of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. Considering all of these bays sat empty for a while, it's nice to see that they've been filled again (and no small feat, either). Still, they're not on the same tier as Rack Room, Hanes, Nautica, GNC, or Wilsons Leather, all of which had preceded these stores in these spaces.
 
 
A quick pan over to take a look at the left half of the center. We'll get closer up on those bays later in the post.
 
 
 
More looks at the Super Bargain/Super Discount duo, as well as Rainbow beyond that. The former two stores seem a bit questionable, in my opinion, but I suppose I shouldn't knock them till I've tried them. Either way, it's interesting to note that the stores in this half of the complex all seem to have opened in the spaces most recently occupied by the retailers who stuck it out the longest and only closed in 2016. I have to wonder how dusty and dirty the other, still-unoccupied bays, which have been abandoned for many years now, are looking these days.
 
 
 
Rainbow, as noted, is the single last national outfit in the Casino Factory Shoppes. They're occupying space formerly home to OshKosh B'gosh. Personal story time... I have memories of shopping at these outlets when I was much younger; Tunica (well, Robinsonville) was only about a half-hour away from my home, and - despite the fact that they are now - a lot of these retailers weren't in the Memphis metropolitan area at the time, or at least not in outlet format anyway. This place made a nice day trip. If it tells you anything about just how young I was, OshKosh was one of the places I remember frequenting. I also fondly remember Kitchen Collection and the next-door welcome center (mostly for its restrooms and water fountains!) as well as, later on, Gap and Old Navy. But my hands-down, absolute favorite store to visit here was the KB Toy Outlet. Nerd moment here: I collected toy Cars, like from the Disney-Pixar movie Cars. An employee at the KB Toys would call our house and hook me up with the new Cars when they arrived. I hesitate at giving her name, but I will say that she was always friendly, and (the closest I'll go as far as divulging her identity is concerned) she loved Mountain Dew. I have no reason to believe she's reading this post, nor (unfortunately) do I know whatever happened to her after the store/chain's closure, but I hope she's doing well. We only came back here intermittently after KB shut down, and simply stopped altogether at some point. It was sad visiting again and seeing the place so run-down. Such is the feeling I get throughout the whole of Tunica County, really. :(
 
 
Continuing on with the pictures. As you can see from the landscaping island in the foreground, even the shrubbery has vacated the complex. That certainly contributed even more to the desolate feeling at play here.
 
 
 
Moving on to the left half of the center now. The two retailers in the photos above are ReMix Thrift & Gifts and Tunica Furniture Market. It seems very apparent that the days of permanent, three-dimensional signage in this shopping center are long gone now in favor of those more cheaply-producible banners. Still, I've got to say that the center itself isn't looking bad at all; the paint in particular seems to be holding up quite well, and the buildings don't look structurally compromised or anything like that.
 
 
 
 
Another cluster of retailers appears as we shift to the left some more. (Notice how they're all grouped together - they must get more business that way, by preventing customers from having to walk long lengths of sidewalk alongside unoccupied storefronts.) Visible here are Smartbuys Indoor Market, The Chocolate Factory Boutique, The Auto Toy Store, the still-operating Tunica Information & Welcome Center, and Mary Lou's Re-Sale Shop. Both Smartbuys and the aforementioned Tunica Furniture Market have actually been here prior to the remaining national anchors all moving out in 2016, but I'm not sure about the others.
 
 
 
Some close-ups of the former Dress Barn storefront. Nothing has moved in here since they vacated, and the labelscar from their logo and signage is still clearly visible. (It's also interesting to note that it looks like they used to be in a different, smaller bay elsewhere in the complex, based on the first photo in today's post.)
 
 
 
Rounding the final corner of the center's layout. Mary Lou's appears to be the last retailer in the strip on the left half. (The Mississippi Gaming Commission office holds that honor for the right half.) And in case you were wondering, the Auto Toy Store is a car lot. Plenty of empty parking spaces here for the store owner to park his inventory on...
 
 
 
Some attempted close-ups of the Old Navy labelscar. This one isn't showing up as well as the Dress Barn one; whether it's actually fainter in person or if it's just my camera, I'm not sure. Old Navy is the very last store I remember ever shopping at in this outlet mall. I may be mixing my memories here, but I think I bought some T-shirts that day, and if so, I'm pretty sure I still own them.
 
 
 
You may have noticed the "Flea Market" banner inside the windows of the former Old Navy; the outlet mall site is indeed being used twice monthly for a flea market, which is a nice sight. It's definitely much busier on those first and third Saturdays of the month, if the above pictures from the flea market's Facebook page are any indication! The outlet mall was also once slated to become the new home of the Mid-South Fair, but for whatever reason those plans fell through and that event now takes place at the Landers Center in Southaven every year. (Fun fact: DeSoto County once considered opening a casino of its own around the same time that Tunica's casinos took off in popularity and numbers, but locals voted down the proposal. Memphis, too, has not shown support for opening any casinos, leaving Tunica's offerings and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, AR, as the closest casinos to the city.)
 
 
 
Two last looks at the left half of the complex, focusing on the end building. This is the very same building pictured at the top of the post, housing Casual Corner Annex. I believe this later became the mall's Lane Bryant store. Unsurprisingly, it's empty now. 

 
This one blurred on me, sadly, but I still thought I'd include it since it's the only overview of the right half of the center that I have. (I took all of these pictures from the passenger seat of a car, without getting out as I normally would, so that's why the photo didn't focus correctly. Frankly, I'm surprised it didn't happen with more of my pictures from this visit, haha! Empty as it may be, this complex is still quite large, so I was able to cover a lot more distance by driving and taking photos than walking around and doing the same :P )
 
 
Last up from the photos I took on my July 2017 visit is this view of the still-standing road sign for the Casino Factory Shoppes. Remember, these signs were once teal; they were repainted white sometime post-2007. And, as promised earlier in the post, several of the former retailers' placards remain intact on the sign. Rainbow, at least, is still in operation, but GNC and Lane Bryant are not. Neither is Nautica, whose placard is among the overturned ones.
 
 
Before I go... I dug up the above new logo for the mall, which has apparently changed its name to "Casino Outlets." As for the name underneath: Robinsonville, the community in which the mall and all of the casinos are located (despite all of the establishments having "Tunica" in their names, none were ever in the city of Tunica proper), has officially changed its name to "Tunica Resorts" to avoid confusion. The logo looks nice, but I think we all can tell it's just for show.
 
These days, eight casinos are still open: the Fitz (Fitzgeralds), Gold Strike (former Circus Circus), Hollywood, Horseshoe, Sam's Town, Tunica Roadhouse (former Sheraton), Resorts Casino Tunica (former Southern Belle, Harrah's Mardi Gras; sold May 2017 to a new operator), and 1st Jackpot (former Bally's, just renamed in September and also sold off this past May). Tunica County tax revenue, according to the May 2017 news report I've referenced (from Fox 13 Memphis), "is down 20 million dollars from what it was eight years ago." Obviously, things aren't as booming as they once were down in Tunica County, either at the casinos themselves or the Casino Factory Shoppes.
 
Regardless, though, "Shop owners tell me [the Fox 13 reporter] as bleak as things look here, more stores have moved in since Christmas [2016] when the big stores packed up." So I guess it's ultimately just a question of how optimistic you are concerning the situation. Tunica never expected to wake up from its sleepy Mississippi Delta life to the glitz, glam, and gold of the casinos back in the 90s, so after getting used to it, this current downturn from the high life is a hard pill to swallow. But who knows - maybe, just maybe, things will unexpectedly pick up again one day in the future. Here's to hoping the odds are in Tunica's favor.
 
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That's it for the Mid-South Retail Blog in 2017. I hope you all have a happy holiday season, whatever you celebrate, and I wish you only the best in the new year. I hope to see you guys back here in the new year as well: I've got plenty more posts in the works for y'all! Until then, stay safe and warm this Christmas, and have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!
 
Retail Retell