In January of last year, residents in Slidell, La., a suburb of New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, were shocked to discover that a wooded stretch of land tucked into the middle of their neighborhood was slated to be cleared for a Walmart Neighborhood Market. It not only seemed an unlikely place to put such a store, but just weeks earlier Walmart had announced plans to build a Neighborhood Market less than four miles south on Pontchartrain Drive. Furthermore, Slidell already had two Walmart Supercenters. Developing the wooded lot on Roberts Drive would be the fourth Walmart in a town of fewer than 30,000 people.
“We are beside ourselves,” said Caroline Poupart, who lived directly behind the site of the proposed Walmart. “That green space has been here since the inception of time,” she told The Times-Picayune.
Yet there was little residents could do to stop Walmart. Like most U.S. cities, Slidell has permissive zoning when it comes to commercial development. This particular wooded lot is zoned for “neighborhood commercial,” under which Walmart’s Neighborhood Market store, which is essentially a large supermarket fronted by a few acres of parking, qualified as an acceptable use.
Today, the forested lot in north Slidell is gone, and the small town is saddled with four Walmart stores.
The situation in Slidell is a microcosm of a strategy Walmart is pushing hard across the southern U.S., and will soon advance northward. Having used its supercenters to capture one-quarter of U.S. grocery sales, the chain is building a new wave of smaller stores that are poised to clean up the market share its supercenters don’t already control. In the New Orleans metro area, Walmart accounted for 40 percent of the $2.1 billion people spent on food in 2012, according to data from Chain Store Guide. Its new stores in Slidell and other suburbs will inch that figure closer to 50 percent.