|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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!