Walmart feels at home in the American suburbia. It’s network of Superstores, Distribution Centers and Data Centers are spread uniformly across the American landscape to ensure maximum efficiency, but its headquarters is still located in the town were Walton first opened its store in the 50s, Bentonville. Instead of moving to an established urban centre, Walmart chose to urbanise its rural hometown in order to attract innovation and diversify its already thriving business. Let’s find out why and how!
Bentonville represents one of the four towns comprising the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metropolitan Area, with a total population of 425,000 (Gascon et al., 2015). It is the tenth largest city in Arkansas (45,000 inhabitants) and the home of Walmart, the largest retailer in the world. Despite the area’s contemporary national and global success as the host of not one but three Global Fortune 500 companies (Walmart, Tyson Foods – the world’s largest chicken-processing corporation – and J. B. Hunt – an important trucking and transportation company), it has a very short history with the first white settlers moving in what was then the hunting ground of Osage Indians, as late as 1837 (Brichall, 2009).
In the 1950s when Sam Walton opened his first Five and Dime discount store in downtown Bentonville, the city had only 3000, mainly white, inhabitants living in a primarily agricultural and rural area (Lancaster, 2010; Brichall, 2009; Gascon et al., 2015). In 1962, Sam Walton opened its first official Walmart store in the nearby city of Rogers and by the 1970s, Walmart grew to the point that it had its own distribution centre and developed an important home office that the family chose to keep in the area despite its remoteness and lack of economic development. The discount retailers’ growth reached new heights in the 1980s and the 1990s and by 2002, Walmart was at the top of the Global Fortune 500 list and today holds the undisputed title of the world’s largest retailer and employs more than 1.3 million people worldwide in nearly 5000 discount stores, supercenters and Sam’s Club wholesale stores (Fishman, 1996).
The main innovations that led to Walmart’s success are deeply rooted in the company’s specialisation in logistics, born from an obsession with efficiency, information and distribution (Fishman, 2006) and the important role played by supermarkets and strip malls in the growth of suburban America (Ellickson, 2006), both as main drivers of local consumerism and as veritable social hubs in environments lacking the necessary public amenities of urban areas (Stone, 1997). Walmart represents the contemporary embodiment of four eras of evolution in the supermarket industry, starting with the chain store in the 1910s, the introduction of the “self-service” supermarkets and the rise of computerisation with the introduction of UPC bar codes and the complementary explosion in product variety which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s (Ellickson, 2006). In a sense, each of these innovations has been about the same thing, getting products to consumers as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and this is what Walmart does best with its national chain of supercenters as nodes in an ever-expanding logistic network of distribution and data centres.
At a local level, although Walmart has announced its plan to become an increasingly global company, it remains highly centralised and geographically concentrated in a remote corner of the country (LeCavalier, 2011b). The presence of these command and control functions transformed Bentonville into a new form of global urbanity characterised by a diffuse set of metropolitan conditions arising from the complexity of forces that concentrated around the retailer in Northwest Arkansas (LeCavalier, 2011a). It represents a critical logistics node in Walmart’s national network but also an ever-growing concentration of regional suppliers’ offices clustering around Walmart’s Home Office (Linn, 2007). Its contemporary form is shaped “by logistics, by mercantilism, by cold war ideology and by a commitment to promote the value of the free market, not just as a means to profit but also as a belief system and as a way of life. […] largely because of Walmart, the region’s blend of logistics, military strategy, sophisticated communications technology, and entrepreneurial capitalism produces specific spatial, architectural, and geopolitical manifestations” (LeCavalier, 2011a). In many ways, the conditions existing in the area are similar to Robert Fishman’s category of the “technoburb” (1996), describing not suburbanisation but the creation of a new type of city. Bentonville grew from a series of small towns into a diffused metropolitan region which mixes all the characteristics of global cities described by Saskia Sassen (2006) in her essay “Why Cities Matter” in a suburban landscape without a centre.
Bentonville, the center of a retail universe
If Walmart’s Supercentres (Hypermarkets) are the company’s most publicly visible part, they are just one element of an entire system of spatial products composed of distribution and data centres (Moon, 2011). Bentonville plays a unique role in this territorial network as the place where Walmart also has its Headquarters, one regional distribution centre and one of its two data centres (LeCavalier, 2011a).
This high concentration of network nodes in which the Head Office is responsible for deciding on which products should be sold in its store and the data centre providing valuable information about consumer insights to the company and its suppliers has led to a high concentration of regional supplier offices (1400 brands) and other ITC companies servicing this growing network and feeding on Walmart’s rich retail externalities (LeCavalier, 2011a).
While the ITC companies working with big data, digital marketing and e-commerce have spread evenly across the region, the supplier network has organically clustered as close as possible to Walmart’s HQ on Walton Boulevard in what people call “Vendorville” (Smith, 2012), a very particular mix of office- and residential architecture “akin to a collection of small consulates in a significant diplomatic capital” (LeCavalier, 2011a).
Urbanization as a CSR objective
Walmart’s investment in social programmes and public infrastructure comes from the company’s need to transform the until recently rural community into a city that would appeal more to the kind of people Walmart wants to hire (Linn, 2007), young urban professionals active in knowledge-intensive work and their families, and to provide enhanced infrastructure for its ever-expanding network of suppliers and subcontractors (Badger, 2012).
However, they are not alone. The same complex web of economic stakeholders active in the area has also given birth to an interesting diversity of philanthropic programmes and investments (DePilles, 2015). The main actors involved in social investment can be categorised into three groups: the Walton family itself through its Walton Family Foundation, Bentonville Downtown NGO and Bentonville Merchant District; Walmart executives and the high profile members of the supplier community.
While the Waltons provide a coordination role and have the widest set of social programmes ranging from education, arts and events, economic development and public amenities to infrastructure works, the other two groups focus their philanthropic activity on providing a better education for their kids and helping local organisations and events.
The Walton Foundation’s social programmes focus on three areas of investment: enhancing K-12 education by subsidising new innovative programmes in the existing public school across the region, investment in arts and cultural amenities ensuring their continued operations and growth, strengthening coordinated regional economic development and entrepreneurship and developing a sense of place in the region (Walton Family Foundation, 2014) by promoting higher quality architecture and urban design through their Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program for public amenities and spaces, promoting alternative transportation choices and the revitalisation of the Bentonville centre through the Downtown Bentonville INC (DBI). DBI is an interesting example of what the Waltons try to achieve as coordinators at different levels. It is an independent non-profit association in charge of promoting and enhancing experiences in the downtown district of Bentonville (Downtown Bentonville Inc., 2016) which, besides organising events, plays the role of matchmaker in linking businesses with downtown opportunities.
Building the future Walton town in Bentonville
More impressive than their social programmes and attempts to create a cohesive business community around the region, are Walton family’s investments into local infrastructure.
Around the region, Walmart invested millions of dollars for road improvements (DePilles, 2015) as well as a new Alice L. Walton Terminal that opened in 1998 at the Norwest Arkansas Regional Airport and serves the growing supplier network and Walmart’s own logistic needs. Walmart also invested heavily in a comprehensive bike trail system (DePilles, 2015) which allows its new upper-class guests to enjoy the Arkansas hilly countryside. In the future, the company is also considering investing in a small-scale public transport system which will connect its offices spread around the metropolitan region.
Walmart has a particular interest in developing and densifying Bentonville’s central area and transforming it into a vibrant city centre. Its investments range from transforming its first shop, Sam’s 5&10 into the Walmart Visitor Centre, new office space for the Walton Family Foundation as well as backing up the development of hip restaurants and high-class hotels like 21C Museum Hotels (Zimmerman, 2015). The Waltons are also offering financial support to the Bentonville Merchant District, an investor alliance which provides upscale urban office space and loft-style apartments in an effort to transform the heart of downtown Bentonville into a “home away from home” (Bentonville Merchants District, 2016) for the travelling business person.
Last but not least, Alice Walton’s obsession with art has materialised in one of the most visually striking projects in the area, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a multimillion investment designed by Moshe Safdie. From its opening in 2011, the museum has attracted 300,000 visitors a year and played the most important role in redefining the area as a national cultural hub. Rather than cultural institutions resulting from urbanisation, the institutions were established first with the hope that the city will follow (LeCavalier, 2011a).
Moreover, other investments followed shortly with the Amazeum, a children-learning centre in Bentonville, a performing arts space for the TheatreSquared in downtown Fayetteville, an adaptive reuse building for the Rogers Historical Museum in downtown Rogers and a new facility and playground for the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Centre in Bentonville. All of these initiatives are supported as pilot projects for the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, aiming at attracting high-quality architecture from world-class designers into the public amenities of the metropolitan region (Walton Family Foundation, 2014).
Efficiency defines the brand and its spaces
Supermarkets, as all retailers, represent a special type of companies distinguishing themselves from other firms by the fact that they primarily sell other companies’ products. In this sense, the focus of such companies is not on developing an efficient production system but on efficiency in logistics (Ellickson, 2011). In architectural terms, Walmart’s shops represent a kind of generic architecture concerned more with its performance than its form (Moon, 2011), a Ford Model T of consumer environments. Walmart’s obsession with efficiency and total coordination makes the company create a range of standardised buildings that reflect these requirements while often ignoring other design values (LeCavalier, 2011b). This approach is radically opposed to spatial manifestations of other major companies composing our study, which usually hire established architects to design signature buildings that symbolise company’s culture and success and develop experience environments around their products.
Individually, these big boxes, surrounded by large parking areas have a limited impact (Mankad, 2011) but seen as the most visible parts of a nationwide network of 861 discount stores, 2664 supercentres, 153 neighbourhood markets, 147 distribution centres and two data centres, they play an important role in reshaping and controlling large amounts of population’s shopping choices. “60 percent of the entire U.S. population lives within 5 miles of a Walmart location and 96 percent are within 20 miles« (LeCavalier, 2010).
A blueprint for corporate urban development
“It might be a plan — or a group of plans as suppliers strive to make the Bentonville assignment an appealing one, while Walmart does the same. Or it might be the result of organic market influences as Walmart execs and Bentonville team members influence the area as consumers”
– Badger (2012)
Bentonville’s and the entire regions contemporary growth is based on a complex web of interconnected but mostly informal network of stakeholders. Walmart, as the leading economic power shaping the area, plays a central role in driving regional development goals both directly through its investment in local infrastructure, amenities and support for the local economic strategy but also indirectly by attracting its suppliers to settle and develop in Arkansas (Ruminski, 2015). As Walmart’s growth exploded during the 1990s, an estimate of 1400 firms ranging from P&G to Microsoft have opened a regional office in the vicinity of the retailer’s head office (Lancaster, 2010). The growing influx of suppliers has spawned yet another layer of development companies that have set up shop in Bentonville to service them. Their business ranges from digital marketing and big data analysis to other activities that enhance the sales of their products (Badger, 2012) in conjunction with the data provided by Walmart. They also provide real estate and retail investment, ensuring that the new inhabitants of Bentonville can benefit from all the requirements of high-class city living in a former rural area.
The local government and its strategic development scheme “Bentonville Blueprint” developed in 2014 is highly influenced by the economic goals and power of the above-mentioned groups, with goals that closely follow Walmart’s own vision for the area in enhancing spatial coherence, urbanisation, densification, development of new social amenities catering to the “creative class” and improvement and development of the current rather opportunistic business climate (Walton Family Foundation, 2014).
Economically, the strategy looks at opportunities to attract new businesses specialised in digital media, light advanced manufacturing, advanced retail technologies, transportation and warehousing services as well as providing support for local entrepreneurship (SMEs) with the development of business incubators, co-working spaces, business accelerators as well as a special seed fund.
Urbanisation efforts concentrate on developing the central area as a dense and dynamic creative district (Bentonville Municipality, 2014) around Walmart’s existing Visitor Centre and the slew of new high-class restaurants and hotels which have opened up in the recent years from the retailer’s own efforts and business subsidies. The redevelopment plan from 2013 calls for the creation of three distinct districts in the downtown area (Bentonville Municipality, 2014). It includes an Arts District with a public plaza, studio space, inexpensive living space for artists, small cafes and a public arts centre; the Market District which will focus on culinary arts, restaurants, a new Farmer’s Market as well as living spaces; and the Razorback Greenway, a new public recreation area which will include single-family housing, shops and other mixed-use developments.
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