Wal-Mart testing convenience store concept

Maria Halkias
The Dallas Morning News

Crowley, Texas — In a parking lot on Main Street in this nondescript town of 14,000, Wal-Mart is testing out what it hopes could be its next small thing — a genuine convenience store.

Walk into the 2,500-square-foot store, and the surroundings feel familiar. There’s the multi-colored ICEE machine, hot dogs sizzling on a roller, and beer stacked in a walk-in refrigerator.

It’s one of two convenience stores Wal-Mart opened last month. The other is in Rogers, Ark., near Wal-Mart’s Bentonville headquarters. Both stores are in the parking lots of Wal-Mart Supercenters. Wal-Mart continues to test small store formats even though it abandoned its 12,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Express stores last year.

Crowley was picked for being located “on the outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth, a very important market to us,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Anne Hatfield. And because it’s just off Interstate-35, a major north-south highway in the central U.S.

Wal-Mart’s strategy seems to be not reinventing the convenience store concept but rather tweaking it.

The store’s hot food section sells pizza, whole and by the slice, and on another bank of hot rollers are the “tornadoes,” a knockoff of 7-Eleven’s taquitos. Community coffee brand is sold from six taps, regular, decaf and flavored. There’s a healthy selection with fruit cups, yogurt and “Market Side” branded salads and wraps, but no calorie counts on the labels.

The rectangle-shaped building sits in front of a row of 16 gasoline pumps, all under cover.

It’s a far cry from Amazon Go, a self-service food store that Amazon recently opened on the street level of one of its corporate buildings in Seattle. Amazon hasn’t said much about another store under construction in Seattle with a drive-up canopy area in front of a building that locals speculate is for online grocery pick-ups.

Wal-Mart is also working on a convenience store concept for its online grocery shoppers.

In December, one of these 4,000-square-foot stores with gasoline pumps opened in Thornton, Colo. It’s similar to one Wal-Mart opened a year ago in Huntsville, Ala.

Inside, the standard coffee, soda and snacks are sold, but these stores include a drive-through for picking up online grocery orders.

Both convenience store concepts are tests, Hatfield said.

“We’re eager for feedback from customers. We want to know what’s working,” she said in an interview.

The convenience store business is not huge for a company Wal-Mart’s size, but as a major seller of gasoline, its 100-and 200-square foot payment kiosks may not offer enough for many of its customers.

Wal-Mart operates a To-Go store in Bentonville, Ark., down the street from its headquarters, and it created a lot of buzz when it opened in 2014. There are no plans to build more of the single 5,000-square-foot To Go store, said Hatfield, which also has a deli section with some warm foods like rotisserie chickens.