In Texas, the Biggest Box Gets Mighty Fancy Trimmings

Wal-Mart is testing the waters (mineral) as well as wines (French), cheeses (imported) and olive oil (extra-virgin) with its upscale new store in Texas.
Wal-Mart is testing the waters (mineral) as well as wines (French), cheeses (imported) and olive oil (extra-virgin) with its upscale new store in Texas. (By Jason Janik -- Bloomberg News)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

PLANO, Tex. -- The world's first high-end Wal-Mart has grocery aisles nearly wide enough to drive a Volkswagen down. Pushing a cart around the store makes you feel like Cinderella, or Cinderfella. Cartoon tweety birds should follow you. You think about hating Wal-Mart. You think about loving it. Wal-Mart thinks about you, a lot. Wal-Mart knows that you know that Wal-Mart knows that Wal-Mart is a ravenous beast. The brain's ticker on Wal-Mart news never stops scrolling: Wal-Mart to open stores in blighted cities. Wal-Mart defies Christian bully pulpit, stocks "Brokeback Mountain" DVDs. Wal-Mart wants to open banks.

Wal-Mart has a $557 bottle of wine.

The corporation calls this high-end store on the windy prairieburbs a one-time experiment, a laboratory box store set among the beautiful box stores north of Dallas. "Please don't think," the company's U.S. division head, Eduardo Castro-Wright, said in a news release when it opened late last month, "that this is the direction that we're taking. This is one of the many tests that we're running to understand how to deliver better value to customers."

But all you can do in here is think -- about life, about taste, about commerce and the little moments where you know they've got your number. The place was designed, Wal-Mart officials have said, to drive women wild, and at the same time appeal to men with a certain retail savvy. It is, as one executive told the press, a Wal-Mart for people who aren't much for yardwork and wouldn't dream of changing their own oil. Instead, you talk to these customers about the $18.64 bottle of EVOO. (Which is foodiespeak for extra-virgin olive oil, which you would know if you were in touch with your inner Rachael Ray.)

You could kill a day here, and we do. It is a Thursday, late morning. We exit the North Dallas Tollway and prepare for an altogether different Wal-Mart, hoping to see a whole new America. Most of the store's 200,000-plus square feet of floor are a polished, earthy-colored concrete. In some departments -- fashion, linens -- the floors are blond hardwood.

We snack on rosy red sashimi at the sushi bar and surf the free Wi-Fi in the cafe. We get our hair did at the SmartStyle, where a stylist tells us how, once the salon part of the store was finished, it was deemed unworthy of the distinct look Wal-Mart was going for in its attempt at upgrading its image. "They ripped everything out and did it over," she says, motioning to all the pale wood and track lighting. "They wanted to do everything right."

When you want the world to know you've changed, say it with cleaner graphics. The employees have been liberated of their blue smocks, and talk (twitchily, though) about how happy their newfound khakiness makes them. There is no Wal-Martish Muzak playing, but there are flat-panel displays suspended from the ceiling here and there, and always seem to be playing a Jack Johnson music video. (Jack Johnson, that barefoot surfing troubadour, is a love drug for suburban moms. Jack Johnson could take you away from all this.) Somehow, all day, you never hear a squealing toddler; just this low, soothing hum of a store breathing in and breathing out. There's never a wait at the registers. (Can we move here? Live in the parking lot?)

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In this store, Wal-Mart is working out some of its Target envy (vaguely Euro), along with a smidge of Whole Foods envy (it's in how you stack the organic vegetables), and a lot of Best Buy envy (the gizmofication of everything). Who knew that the most successful retailer of all time -- so admired, so successful, so adored by senior citizens and immigrants and 6-year-olds yet so reviled for its perceived soullessness -- could evince so many neuroses about self-image at once?

Time passes, loitering around the world's nicest, newest nowhere. The shoppers here frequently say, in the sweetest Texas drawls, "Excuse me" and "Ooops, I'm sorrrrry" when their carts are even remotely in your way. So we bump into them sort of intentionally. This might be our very favorite thing of all: the infinite politeness. They've all read their Joel Osteen. They're all living purpose-driven lives.

And we're all being watched. It is, after all, the nascent week, the Grand Opening, and around every aisle there seems to be another group of casually dressed Wal-Mart executives from Planet Bentonville, muck-a-mucks, regional this or that. The men wear pressed pants and polo shirts and badges on lanyards; the women are Ann Taylorish. They whisper to one another -- what do they whisper? Leaning closer, pretending to need the conditioner on the bottom row, we find that they're talking about the ceiling. It's beautiful, Wal-Mart Woman says to Wal-Mart Man.

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