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Walmart Eyes Pet Clinics, Dog Parks, Even Pet-Friendly Bars to Compete With Online Rivals

World's Biggest Retailer Also Focuses on Suburban Properties
October 12, 2018
Walmart is experimenting with adding veterinary clinics to its brick and mortar stores as it plans more locations in mixed-use developments. Photo credit: Mike Mozart via Flickr.


Walmart surged to the top of the American retailing heap by figuring out new ways to lure more people into its stores. Now it may try to draw more dogs and other pets, and their owners, with veterinary care clinics, dog parks and even so-called growler bars where human customers can get a drink with their pet.

The concepts come as the world’s largest retailer attempts to better integrate its brick-and-mortar locations into its customers' lives while wrestling with the hyper-competitive world of online sales.

It's also experimenting with plans to set up shop in places it's rarely done so previously, including mixed-use residential developments, as well as responding to significant shifts in technology, demographics and consumer expectations for retail interactions that are convenient but also experiential.

“We're working with a couple of developers on creating some mixed-use spaces where there will be these experiences --some multifamily, plus some other experiences like movie theaters and whatever else that lets people live-work-play within the confines that they're in," said JP Suarez, executive vice president in Walmart's U.S. realty division, at a panel about major changes buffeting the retail industry at the International Council of Shopping Centers' Western Conference in Los Angeles this week. "That’s a big trend we're seeing happening in suburbia as well as downtown.”

The world's largest company by revenue, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart racked up more than $500 billion in 2017 sales but has generally been slowing the pace of new store development in recent years. Suarez said demographic and lifestyle factors are spurring the retailer to rethink where it locates and what features it incorporates into those future stores.

It has recently been experimenting on a limited basis with operating on-site veterinary clinics at some of its U.S. stores. Suarez said stores that operate those clinics have seen upticks in sales for pharmacy and other purchases, as those customers buy medications and related items for their dogs and other pets.

Details aren't being divulged on Walmart's mixed-use development plans, which could put its stores in places other than the strip retail centers and stand-alone buildings it has traditionally favored.

But Suarez's predictions for the future of retail indicate that Americans' love of dogs could play a big role in Walmart's upcoming brick-and-mortar stores. Its informal consumer surveys point to craft-beer "growler bars" and dog parks as possible neighborhood-oriented customer draws that are compatible with busy lifestyles.

"We ask people what they like, we show them a couple of different options, then we show them a dog park, and they say that’s what I’ll go to probably multiple times a week," Suarez said. "Because I’ve got to walk my dog."

While they're walking their dogs, those customers might also pick up some items at Walmart and get their laundry done at another establishment in the same mixed-use development. While their children play on an outdoor amusement set, their parents might get some exercise at a nearby gym -- possibly followed by a beer at that growler bar.

"Amazon can’t walk your dog for you," Suarez said. "And if you give someone a great experience, you’re in the game.”

Taking on fast-rising Amazon and other online sellers, Walmart has been acquiring technology firms like India-based Flipkart, and expanding its ecommerce-related tech workforce in several U.S. cities. Suarez said the retailer by the end of 2019 is expected to have at least 3,000 stores set up for online grocery purchases for pickup, and another 800 stores delivering items to customers' homes.

Melina Cordero, head of retail research for the Americas at brokerage firm CBRE Group, said stores and restaurants are among many businesses now responding to the desire of suburban residents for the same amenities available to their urban counterparts, without having to endure long commutes to get to them.

"Just like we're not going to be waiting in line anymore, our patience for sitting in traffic for three hours on the 405 (freeway) is waning as well," Cordero said. With the exception of Los Angeles and some other large cities now seeing downtown resurgences, she said California and other states generally are seeing net migration toward suburbs.

Even the age 35-and-younger millennials, who now favor urban centers, are expected to migrate to suburban areas as they have children and seek out neighborhoods with green spaces and good schools.

Tom McGee, chief executive of the New York-based ICSC trade group, said that could cause suburban real estate "to become pretty popular" again, after the past several years of focus on urban centers.

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