ROGERS, Ark. — Style at a Wal-Mart used to mean a clean cut on the side of a box so customers could get their products right from the case.
But the world's largest retailer has been working for years to improve its stores' appearance and, on Wednesday, unveiled its new design for remodeled stores — a look that ties each section of the store together with a fresh use of light and color.
Gone are the high shelves stuffed with so much it was hard for shoppers to find what they sought. Now, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is showing softer colors, understated shelving and employing a design intended to keep customers from having to dart all over a tremendous store to gather their purchases.
"We're trying to make it more experiential, rather than just stuff we're selling," said Joe Tapper, the company's vice president for store presentation. "We've placed emphasis on making it more enjoyable."
Having shelves filled with cardboard boxes worked for a time, but has seen its day, Tapper said.
"All those types of things are evolutionary. We've evolved with the customer," he said.
The bright design fits with the company's economic-downturn strategy of offering affordable fun — from DVDs to prepared meals — that families are opting for instead of eating out and going to the movies.
Wal-Mart studied how its customers shop, and Tapper and Jay Mitchael — Wal-Mart’s vice president for merchandise and modular planning — found that customers weren’t spending their time efficiently. But the changes aren’t designed to rush the customer out of the store.
"The idea is to make the experience seem faster," Tapper said. Being able to see from one department to the next helps. So does having more long aisles that stretch from one end of the store to the other. Vertical high-definition video screens placed in key areas carry promotions and are intended to help shoppers find what they want.
The company has already been putting a premium on keeping stores clean and checkout wait times short — necessary elements for the new look to be effective.
Most customers enter through a Supercenter's grocery side, but they'll see the first change before they get inside. A store in Rogers — Store No. 1, in fact — features the new "Walmart" logo — no hyphen. The logo has been on Wal-Mart advertising but is only now migrating to the stores themselves. Above the grocery entrance is a sign saying "Market and Pharmacy." The general merchandise side says "Home and Living." The message is soft and understated, considering Wal-Mart's penchant for garish colors.
Wal-Mart announced this week that it is pulling back on openings of new stores and will instead focus on remodeling existing properties. The Rogers store that was redone is the descendant of the first Wal-Mart, now in its third location on West Walnut. Originally a general merchandise store, the building was expanded to convert it into a grocery-selling Supercenter. The grocery side has higher ceilings and skylights, features of more recent store designs.
Shoppers enter the food area through the bakery and produce areas. Mitchael, whose background is in engineering, said the lower shelves and wider aisles give the shopper a clear path to move to the next stop. The new shelving is designed to be less noticeable, letting the product itself meet the customer's eye. That and the price. Signs advertising low prices, including "Unbeatable" deals, are everywhere. At the seafood cooler, "imitation krab" was touted as an unbeatable deal at $2.48 per pound.
Unless the shopper is standing in a corner, there is no place in the store that a customer can't perform a 360-degree turn without seeing numerous "strike points," places of emphasis that lead the shopper to sets of related items. Seasonal items greet customers at the entrances, as do products featured for their low prices. Seasonal products are also meshed with regular stock.
In the main seasonal area at the front of the store, a large selection of Halloween-related items lined the shelves. But next week, Halloween will be over and the store will need a quick makeover.
Mitchael pointed to the far side of the seasonal racks, where Christmas bows and ornaments were stocked.
"We'll just extend the Christmas items over," he said.
The flexibility of the design is also helping Wal-Mart meet its long-pursued goal of tailoring stores for each community. The Rogers store has a service seafood area and the bakery area is redesigned so customers can see the bakers at work.
"We want to utilize that to create theater," said Tapper, whose background is in food marketing.
Light falls on products placed to show off low price points to help guide shoppers from area to area.
"We're using lighting to drive things that are unique in the store," Tapper said. The company is also using pictures on the walls that reflect the goods in various departments, from hardware to electronics, to give each a unique feel but one that ties in with surrounding departments. The books and magazine section was moved from the front of the store so it is now tied to electronics.
"Books are a declining category, but they're entertainment so we brought them here," Tapper said.
Wal-Mart has been working to gear its stores to female shoppers, and Tapper said the designers had women in mind.
"Our signs are more female-friendly," Tapper said. "The signs are all curved. Those things have been looked at and we're trying to make those more friendly."
The new design also allows sections to be easily expanded to make room for hot items or to address seasonal needs.
Perhaps the most striking reflection of the new design is in the home section. Low shelves stacked with towels use the color of the items themselves to create a palate under soft lighting.
"We want to make sure we recognize the color wheel does exist," Tapper said.
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