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Wal-Mart Accents CE In Upscale Prototype

4/10/2006 02:00:00 AM Eastern

This ain't your father's Wal-Mart.

The retailer's experimental supercenter, which opened last month in this well-heeled Dallas suburb, puts into practice what management has been preaching about attracting higher-income customers.

And based on the CE department's dramatically expanded footprint, upgraded assortment and newly knowledgeable sales staff, Wal-Mart has made electronics a key battleground for consumers' hearts, minds and wallets.

The store, from its two-tone brick exterior to simulated wood floors and faux marble rest rooms, is a striking departure from the chain's typically drab blue and gray facilities. Aisles are wide, bright and uncluttered; oversized signage abounds; flat-panel displays provide directional messages; and associates have traded in their smocks for the Best Buy uniform of khaki pants and blue polo shirts.

Also gone are the dump bins, pallet displays and overhead storage; noisy in-store radio and PA annoucements; and layaway plans and fast food courts that are familiar elements of Wal-Mart stores. Instead, customers can sip cappuccino in a Wi-Fi enabled coffee bar, purchase fresh sushi or hot panini sandwiches, and shop the 1,200-label wine section.

The high-end orientation extends to CE, where Hitachi makes its Wal-Mart debut with a 42W-inch HD plasma TV (retail: $2,686). Panasonic is also present in plasma with a 50W-inch monitor that sells for $3,477. And the units share display space with Sony Grand Wega rear-projection LCD-TVs, in 42W-inch ($1,994) and 55W-inch ($2,794) sizes.

The expansive department also features multiple Kodak photo kiosks; a wider selection of better DVD players, HTiBs and accessories; and is anchored by the new plastic enclosure displays for personal electronics that are rolling out to select stores nationwide.

The CE area is also unique for its dedicated sales associates. While still non-commissioned, the staffers are nonetheless trained in the fine points of their products, with an assist from a Dallas consultancy called Mosaic and its “Know-It-All” black shirt agents.

Despite the expanded assortment, premium lines and added assistance, local A/V specialists can take solace in the store's lack of home delivery or installation services.

According to Wal-Mart, the 203,000-square-foot facility will serve as a laboratory for exploring merchandise, store layout, and customer service strategies, while its location — in a highly competitive retail corridor — makes its ideal for testing store features to enhance the customer shopping experience.

“With the opening of this store, Wal-Mart is adopting an active approach to understanding and meeting customer needs, particularly those of the selective female shopper,” said John Fleming, executive VP/chief marketing officer. “This store will function as an active laboratory for testing a range of new ideas and merchandise in a fully operational setting. If something doesn't work, we will change it and try something else. And when an innovation resonates with our customers, we will consider introducing it in other stores.”

“For something to work in Plano, it has to be good,” added Wal-Mart regional general manager John Murphy. “Customers here are discerning, and I can't think of a better marketplace in which to test our most innovative thinking.”

Indeed, Wal-Mart has a long history of piloting new ideas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that were later introduced in stores around the country, including its first 24-hour pharmacies, the trial of Walmart.com's site-to-store delivery service and the first experimental environmental supercenter about 20 miles away in McKinney, Texas.