Saturday marks the beginning of a grand experiment for Wal-Mart, and the East Valley will be its laboratory.
That's the day the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer opens four new stores called Marketside in Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert to gauge consumer response to their brand of small neighborhood markets.
|Click for full version|
Wal-Mart hopes the prototypes are just the beginning, and the chain will eventually reach beyond the Valley and across the nation.
Amee Chande, vice president of strategy and marketing for Marketside, said the company will be paying close attention to consumer reaction.
"It is so important to get in here and talk to the customers and understand 'Is this ... a different shopping experience or is this more of the same?'" she said.
Marketside will place a heavy emphasis on convenience, freshness and low prices, the company said.
If that sounds familiar, it's probably because those are also key objectives for Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, a grocery chain that was opened last year by Tesco, a United Kingdom-based grocer. Fresh & Easy is expected to be Marketside's biggest competitor.
There are some differences, however.
Unlike Fresh & Easy, Marketside doesn't carry many private label products, and the stores provide cashiers to ring customers up whereas Fresh & Easy has self-serve checkout stands with a nearby employee to assist.
But Marketside representatives said they consider the entire grocery market fair game - not just Fresh & Easy. They intend to draw customers from across the demographic gamut.
Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resources, an industry consulting firm, said Wal-Mart may be playing down expectations for the new retailer by saying the stores are only pilot stores, but he has no doubt that the company is determined to win.
Flickinger, who is a Wal-Mart shareholder, said the company would eventually like to put a stop to any momentum Fresh & Easy has gained in the Southwest.
David J. Livingston, an industry consultant, said both companies have deep pockets that could draw out a long competition for market dominance, but both also have challenges.
"I think Wal-Mart has a lot better shot at it than Fresh & Easy - one, because they've got name recognition, and two, they do understand the U.S. market a lot better than Tesco," he said.
But Livingston said Marketside won't be a "slam-dunk" for Wal-Mart, saying that the company has struggled in the past with new store concepts.