CSP Exclusive: Inside Walmart on Campus

Despite cramped aisles & 7-foot-high shelves, pilot program packs ‘em in

Published in CSP Daily News

ATLANTA -- My first step into the Walmart on Campus store at Georgia Tech was not what I expected. Immediately faced with an endcap full of prepaid cards, this was not the convenience store I envisioned.

Don’t get me wrong: This is a convenient store, offering students and faculty quick and easy access to the necessities of college life: snack and protein bars, frozen foods, breakfast cereal, laundry detergent and shampoo. And there are also printer cartridges, school supplies and, perhaps most high-profile, a full pharmacy.

Yes, there are single-serve sodas (This is exclusively a Coca-Cola house.), snacks and candy, but they’re not the bread and butter--so to speak--of this store.

Yes, the small, 2,300-square-foot site--in the former home of a barbecue quick-service restaurant--wants customers coming in multiple times a day, but one visit might be to purchase beauty supplies, another to get something to eat as an on-the-go lunch and the third to fill a prescription.

The store’s busiest times of the day are “lunch hour, dinner time as the day wraps up and then again right about 9 p.m.,” store manager Stacy Khorana told CSP Daily News in an exclusive interview. “Breakfast on the go is a big commodity here, so we have everything from Pop Tarts to healthy cereals to give everybody a choice as to what they want.”

Staying in Stock

“And our grab-and-go frozen [foods] are also priced at the Supercenter prices. So you can get a healthy meal that you can take back to your dorm or office if you’re on your lunch. And of course Ramen Noodles, that’s a big seller.”

Khorana says more than once she’s put out a full box of Ramen Noodles only to turn around and have a customer grab the whole container off the shelf.

Other products that sell well are laundry detergent, household cleaners and toilet tissues.

But the Atlanta store, which closes at 10 p.m. most nights, is still working out its product offer.

“With our [small] space, we have to use it to accommodate what [our customers] want. So there was a lot of research prior to opening,” Khorana says. And that research continues. “The day we opened [Aug. 14], we had an ambassador stand at the door and we would ask: Is there something that you would like to see here? So the customers have become accustomed to telling us they want this or that. We take that list daily, and anything I can incorporate immediately, I make a phone call to bring it in.”

One recent addition is fresh fruit--bananas, apples and oranges--which is stocked in baskets on an end cap. During my visit, I saw students grabbing six or eight bananas at a time.

“This (Walmart on Campus) is a pilot program, so we are still learning how students shop and what they are looking for,” says Walmart spokesperson Amanda Henneberg. “You’ll find smaller packages on our shelves and items that have been selected for convenience. We know that students often don’t have much storage space and their budgets are limited in many cases.”

One advantage has been the adaptability of college-age students. While they may put in a special request for a certain shampoo to be stocked, when they see the Cheez-Its shelf bare--as it was on the day of my visit--they’ll readily grab a box of Kellogg’s Cracker Chips as a replacement.

That’s not to say Khorana willingly lets shelves get picked clean. In a site this small, there’s little space for storage in a backroom, and most product categories are delivered daily. Frozen foods are delivered weekly and packed in the freezers “as tightly as we can,” Khorana says. Still the Hot Pocket and Lean Cuisine sections were nearly picked clean six days after the last delivery. The bottom line is: This cramped store, which doesn’t sell alcohol or tobacco, is packed with customers at almost all hours.

During my visit in the late afternoon on a weekday, the thin aisles with 7-foot-high shelves were often impassable as college-aged students browsed the shelves with baskets in hand. At the checkout, as many customers opted to use the self-pay aisle as the manned cash register.

Meanwhile, the pharmacists on site are working with the university to share services and let students know the pharmacy is open after the college’s health-center hours.

“We’re really trying to become part of the community here,” Khorana says.

An Assessment

So, is this a store design that convenience store retailer should be wary of? Well, if you’re site is near a college or university, a store like this opening on campus would certainly make an impact. But with its cramped space and lack of room to give many grab-and-go products a secondary placement at the checkout, I don’t see this format, as it stands, working in too many places other than a university or possibly a busy commuter location--I’m thinking maybe in a train station.

What it does have going for it is a familiar name and familiar products offered in Walmart’s popular Supercenters that could give a feeling of comfort and independence to a teenager away from home for the first time.

To date, there are three Walmart on Campus sites with a fourth scheduled to open in Missouri in October. The overall goal? Says Henneberg, “The same goal that we have for all our stores--finding new ways to make shopping more convenient for our customers.”

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