My humblest apologies for lack of updates over the last two weeks, but I’ve been enjoying a trip to Canada. And if I’d publicly announced that in advance on a blog, then I’m sure some nefarious bastards would have been round to steal my car, strip the lead off my roof and vandalise the miniature gauge railway that runs through the sumptuous grounds at Roberts Acres.
Anyway, Canada is a fine nation with (generally) fine people and some excellent retailing. Not to mention a fine line in cider and some tip-top fast food. I’ll take a look at the grocery, discount & department store and HBC sectors in general over the next couple of weeks, but being a Walmart blog, I’ll focus on that esteemed business for the time being.
I managed to visit around 10 Walmart stores over the course of my trip and found, to be honest, a bit of a mixed bag in terms of shopping experience.
Let’s start off with the positive. I saw a few Supercentres and they varied from pretty good to amazing. Obviously, all Canadian Supercenters are fairly new stores and many of them are at various stages of the Project Impact/rebranding process that most of their American cousins have already undergone. The first Canadian Supercentres were vastly superior – in my opinion – to their US counterparts at the time they first opened for business and now are they are receiving the same tender loving care in terms of décor, logo and merchandising, they are improving even more.
One Supercentre I saw – in Port Elgin, Ontario – must have been virtually brand new to the point of the paint still being wet and was indeed a thoroughly enjoyable place to shop. The exterior store design, flooring, lighting, fixtures and graphics created a stylish store that was easy to navigate with plenty of logical adjacencies. In terms of the store’s look and feel, the updated graphics and colour schemes afforded the store a warm and friendly ambiance and I was particularly taken with the fresh, entertainment and fashion departments, with different floors, graphics and colour schemes giving each department a coherence and identity in its own right.
One possible improvement to the otherwise excellent fresh grocery section could be that the prepared entrees section would really benefit from the introduction of a private brand along the lines of Walmart US’s Marketside range. Many other grocery stores that I saw (more of which next week) benefited from excellent private label ranges across a whole variety of perishable categories – perhaps Walmart Canada should follow suit?
Elsewhere in the store, it was good to see that Walmart Canada is benefitting from the improved design and more striking visual impact of the overhauled Great Value private range and the George range of clothing also appears to be performing well.
Walmart’s Canadian discount stores were extremely variable in terms of experience. Some are yet to be hit with the remodelling stick, but I’m guessing that the company is kind of figuring ‘why bother?’ if the stores in question are shortly to be relocated to new-build Supercentres or extended into the bigger format. Either way, a couple of the old school discount stores looked and felt slightly brutal in comparison to their more advanced and larger Supercentre siblings, but the couple that I saw that had been upgraded to the new branding and merchandising were perfectly pleasant in their own right.
This might be a slightly unfair criticism due to a number of factors, but by far the worst store was the discount store in the Square One mall in beautiful surroundings of Mississauga. I say unfair criticism because it is a two-floor outlet that is not necessarily in Walmart’s sweet spot in terms of layout and I also suspect that the store is a victim of its own success in that is by far the busiest Walmart unit I have ever encountered. It has changed precious little since I last visited about four years ago, save for some new internal signage and a ton of promotional clutter hawking the retailer’s new Mastercard. Partly because it was so busy, but also because it is cramped and not the most logical in terms of layout, the place was a nightmare to shop and far from convenient and aesthetically pleasing. There was product lying all over the floor in certain departments and there were some yawning gaps on the shelves. As I said, a victim of its own success, but ‘could do better’ is probably a fair summary.
My other gripes that apply to all of the stores I visited would include disappointing levels of out of stocks in the music category. When I go shopping for CDs, I generally like to choose between a variety of CDs rather than between a variety of pieces of cardboard telling me what CDs were on sale at some point in the past. Availability was especially poor in the all important (when I’m visiting anyway) country category. Frustrating.
The other half-hearted complaint I would have is that Sam Walton’s famous ’10 foot rule’ has seemingly been replaced by Walmart Canada with something akin to a ‘450 foot exclusion zone’. I say it’s a half-hearted complaint because I am a socially inept Englishman, and as such, I harbour a pathological fear of intrusive customer service. Also, as an analyst, I wish to be left in piece to ferret around with my camera. So, no real complaints from me. In any case, associates were more than knowledgeable and courteous when called upon and the checkout staff were unfailingly cheery and helpful – one kindly took the time to place sticky tape on the magnetic strip of my credit card to make sure it would swipe properly. Now, that’s the kind of customer service I appreciate.
All in all, Walmart Canada will be a phenomenal force when all of its Supercentres are refreshed and when all of the vintage discount stores have been remodelled, extended or relocated. Once all of the stores are of the calibre of Port Elgin, Walmart Canada will be taking no prisoners.