A Wal-Mart in the French Quarter. There, I said it.
Don’t fret, dear readers. To my knowledge, Wal-Mart has no designs on the French Quarter, and perhaps never will. In fact, it stands to reason that Wal-Mart is content with its hard-fought Tchoupitoulas location in the Lower Garden District. Honestly, why would Wal-Mart pick such a fight?
Furthermore, Wal-Marts are gargantuan department stores. The average size of a Wal-Mart store, according to their website, is 108,000 square feet. It would be virtually impossible to fit one in the Quarter unless you razed an entire city block, and the National Historic Landmarks Commission would probably have something to say about that.
So why am I talking about a Wal-Mart in the Quarter? Why even make such a provocative hypothetical?
The answer lies in recent developments. In mid-January of this year, Wal-Mart opened up a 3,500 square foot store on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This miniature Wal-Mart has a full-service pharmacy as well as general merchandise. It’s more akin to a chain pharmacy than it is to a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
That’s not all. Just this May, Wal-Mart announced that the Fayetteville campus Wal-Mart was no one-shot deal, and that it now plans to open additional Wal-Mart campus locations. Moreover, Wal-Mart announced that it is already building its first three “Wal-Mart Express Stores,” smaller-scale department stores designed to compete with dollar stores and other mid-sized general retailers. Wal-Mart plans to open as many of 40 of these smaller stores by the end of this year.
“Our new Wal-Mart Express stores will offer a great assortment at great prices in roughly 15,000 square feet,” says David Tovar, Vice President of Communications for Wal-Mart U.S. “The merchandise mix will include a strong emphasis on groceries as well as a more limited selection of general merchandise.”
Wal-Mart has already opened up smaller locations internationally, but these efforts represent its first concerted effort to build them stateside.
For the sake of comparison, 15,000 square feet – the target size for the new Wal-Mart express stores – is very similar to the average size of a Walgreens. According to Walgreens’ website, their average store size is only slightly less, at 14,500 square feet. Walgreens, it should be noted, already has one location inside of the Quarter, plus its iconic location just off the Quarter on Canal Street.
See where I’m going with this? The idea of a Wal-Mart in the French Quarter is sounding somewhat less far-fetched given Wal-Mart’s evolving business model.
The real question then becomes whether there would be any legitimate basis for opposing a Wal-Mart in the French Quarter. After all, the Quarter already tolerates chain stores. The city could not, as a strictly legal matter, discriminate against Wal-Mart simply for being Wal-Mart, regardless of the ire that brand generates in some quarters.
Furthermore, we should be asking if the idea of a Wal-Mart in the Quarter is really that offensive. If Wal-Mart complied with all architectural and zoning restrictions, worked with neighbors and otherwise made every effort to accommodate all parties, would it really be such an atrocity if they opened up a small store in the Quarter? Once the initial shock of the notion of a Wal-Mart in moving into the French Quarter wears off, it’s apparent that the real issues are about aesthetics and land use. Those are matters susceptible to compromise.
Again, this is all a hypothetical. Wal-Mart will still probably never move into the Quarter. However, Wal-Mart’s strategy suggests that it is attempting to infiltrate new markets. Some have hypothesized that Wal-Mart may attempt to open up smaller stores in cities presently without a Wal-Mart, such as New York City. If not in the Quarter, these issues will be played out somewhere else, and soon.
But fear not, dear readers. There is no Wal-Mart in the Quarter… Yet.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.