The national retail giant Walmart is looking to expand in the Northwest suburbs, but it wants its newest stores to have more of a neighborhood feel than the traditional big box supercenters.
Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery stores will make their first foray into the suburbs next year, after the opening of four such locations in Chicago since 2011.
The first two suburban locations are being proposed in Des Plaines and Rolling Meadows, with a planned opening by the fall of 2014.
And while such grocery stores aren't new to Walmart -- they started in 1998 in the company's home city of Bentonville, Ark. -- they are new to this region, and they are seen as significant competition to other grocers.
"(Walmart) continues to have a price advantage when they go head-to-head against grocery stores," said Paul Weitzel, managing partner of Willard Bishop Consulting, a Barrington-based supermarket consulting firm. "There's no way (other) grocers can compete on price. So other retailers have to win on service. They have to win on better fresh departments."
Walmart Neighborhood Market stores occupy a smaller footprint than supercenters -- only 38,000 square feet compared to 182,000.
And groceries make up about three-quarters of what is offered at a Neighborhood Market, compared to about a third at supercenters.
Walmart officials say their grocery stores are all about "customer convenience to fresh and affordable groceries."
"This smaller store format is perfect for anyone who is on the go but still wants the same familiar brands at great values, right in their own neighborhood," said Walmart spokeswoman Anne Hatfield.
Weitzel said the presence of Walmart's Neighborhood Market stores -- and even smaller Walmart Express stores that have opened in Chicago and other urban areas -- are attempts to locate in areas where a traditional store wouldn't fit.
"It gives them that smaller footprint to get into places where they can't with a supercenter," Weitzel said. "It gives them more options."
In Des Plaines, the new Walmart grocery is expected to occupy an existing 37,000-square-foot retail space at a shopping center near Golf and Elmhurst roads. It has sat vacant for about two years, city officials said.
The location was home to a Butera for some 25 years, and then International Fresca Market for only about six months.
While a grocery store is an approved use for the site, Walmart still must submit its plans to the city building department for review.
Already this month, the three-member city architectural review commission gave its preliminary approval to Walmart's plans for refreshing the building's facade.
The Rolling Meadows Walmart store is proposed for the site of the old AMF bowling alley at 3245 Kirchoff Road. Walmart officials have proposed razing the existing structure and building a new 41,000-square-foot store.
A revised set of plans are under review by the city's community development department, after the first proposal presented to the city council in July.
"The city council expressed willingness to work with them but expressed concerns about traffic, and ingress/egress," said Valerie Dehner, the city's community development department director. "They've submitted the second reiteration of the proposal, and staff has reviewed it. We're still needing to get to the point where we feel comfortable going forward with it."
The Walmart grocery in Rolling Meadows would likely be seen as a direct competitor to the Jewel store across Kirchoff Road and an Uncle Joe's Tuscan Fresh Market that is expected to open a block away.
Each new Walmart grocery store is expected to have 95 employees.
The Chicago area's first Walmart Neighborhood Market opened at Presidential Towers in downtown Chicago in September 2011. In January 2013, three more opened in the city's Little Village, Back of the Yards and Lakeview neighborhoods.
Others are expected to open soon in the city's Grand Crossing and Auburn-Gresham neighborhoods.
There's about 300 such stores nationwide. Weitzel said there's been talk of adding another 100 to 200 to that total.