On October 12, a Wal-Mart opened just outside of the city boundary to surprisingly little media coverage considering that could be introducing the next trend in retail development to the DC region.
For the past 20 years, big box stores have scouted massive swaths of land at the fringe of suburbs and small towns, competing with one another by building bigger and bigger stores. With the current economic downturn along with the fact that the ideal big box site is becoming scarce, these retailers have had to re-examine their strategy.
The result is stores with smaller footprints, more community serving goods, and a focus on sites in cities and older suburbs. The 90,000 square foot store next to Bloom is the first of these formats in the DC area. Sizes for WalMart Super Centers range from 150,000 to over 200,000 square feet. Other smaller WalMart stores are planned in Chantilly, Tysons Corner, Shirlington, and of course the four sites in DC that have been the center of many debates.
In other areas of the country, WalMart is opening even smaller “Neighborhood Markets” with footprints of 40,000 square feet or less. The company also plans to blanket the country with drug store sized “Express WalMarts”, with as many as 350 new stores per year beginning in 2012.
Earlier this year, Target opened the first “CityTarget” store in Chicago. These stores are similar in size to the new Fairfax WalMart and carry a similar mix of groceries and general merchandise. Other “smaller” big box stores, such as Best Buy, Old Navy, and Sports Authority are also looking at smaller format stores.
With smaller footprints comes a smaller trade area of just a 2-3 mile radius. This puts Fairfax City in a prime location to fill the void between Tysons Corner and Fair Lakes. Though this could be an economic boon for the city as well as an added convenience, it could stand in the way of any effort to turn our aging strip centers into more pleasant and walkable places.
Luckily, many retailers have already learned that the best marketing strategy isn’t necessarily to build a sterile box behind a sea of parking and have already been locating in more pedestrian friendly contexts. Still, we should be ready demand that any new retailers in the city adhere to design guidelines that enhance the pedestrian environment and protect the city’s character.