Walmart is expanding its university-focused store concept. The discounter recently opened a fifth Walmart on Campus store, this one at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond.
The first Walmart on Campus opened at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in January 2011. In addition to the stores at VCU and the University of Arkansas, there are Walmart on Campus stores at Arizona State University, Georgia Tech University and the University of Missouri.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart is one of only a handful of national retailers with stores on college campuses. The demand is there, but there are unique challenges related to serving students and operating on campus, says Dusty Batsell, director of asset management – retail for American Campus Communities.
The Austin, Texas-based student housing REIT is Walmart’s landlord at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. ASU's Walmart on Campus opened in 2013. “It’s busy all the time, especially during move-in,” Batsell says.
The 5,000-sq.-ft. Walmart on Campus store is located in American Campus’s Vista Del Sol mixed-use development. In addition to retail space, Vista Del Sol offers 2,266 student housing beds.
“I’ve always thought Walmart’s on-campus stores were a very smart idea,” Batsell says. “It’s a way for Walmart to add to their store count without taking on the development risk and expense.”
Walmart spokesperson John Forrest Ales says the chain’s on-campus stores are another way of meeting the needs of its customers. “We’re always looking at new ways to take care of our customers,” he adds.
Walmart on Campus stores range from 2,000 to 6,000 sq. ft., according to Ales. The stores feature a pharmacy and offer groceries and general merchandise, including an assortment of fresh produce, dairy and meats, dry goods, consumables, health and beauty aids, over-the-counter medicines and merchandise tailored to the college students, faculty and staff.
In addition, Walmart on Campus stores offer free pickup for Walmart.com purchases. Ales says the chain wants to make it easy to shop at Walmart, and integrating online and physical retail offers a higher level of convenience to its customers.
The merchandise at Walmart on Campus is tailored to each location. Batsell has noted that Walmart is very deliberate with its merchandising since space is at a premium. “They’ve done a good job figuring out what SKUs are moving,” he notes.
Staying on campus
Historically, retail on college campuses was limited to bookstores or the occasional convenience store. “There was a limited selection, and usually you had to go off campus to find what you need,” Batsell notes.
But all that is changing as forward-thinking universities partner with developers like American Campus to bring retail to their campuses. “Today’s students are sophisticated consumers,” Batsell says. “Universities are competing for students, and in order to attract them, they have to find a way to meet the needs of these students.”
Batsell points to American Campus’s mixed-use development at Drexel University in Philadelphia as an example of colleges embracing retail. The REIT included 45,000 sq. ft. of retail in three student housing buildings, and the tenant mix is heavily focused on food and services. Tenants include Shake Shack and Joe Coffee, along with two local restaurant concepts and a yogurt shop.
“Retail on campus means that students don’t have to get in their cars to get what they need,” Batsell points out. “They can walk to the shops and restaurants, and that concept of walkabilty has really taken hold.”