Jeff Karoub, AP, March 15, 2008
Boxes of the date-filled, whole wheat cookie from the Middle East welcomed the 21-year-old Lebanon native into the international aisle of the new Wal-Mart store in this Detroit suburb known as the capital of Arab America. Aisle 3, which also features Eastern European and Hispanic food, represents many of the 550 items geared toward Arab-American shoppers in the store that opened last week.
It might be statistically tiny in a store with more than 150,000 items, but it’s symbolically huge for the world’s largest retailer as it seeks to change from a cost-is-everything monolith to one that customizes its stores to meet neighborhood needs.
Managers say they seek peace with the neighborhood’s merchants—and vow not to undercut them on Middle Eastern specialties. But some experts and observers say Wal-Mart’s well-planned launch in Dearborn is bound to shake up the buying and selling in a community that has long supported its own. Southeastern Michigan is home to an estimated 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East.
The Dearborn store also sells Arabic music and plans to offer Muslim greeting cards. But the modifications go beyond merchandise: It has 35 employees who speak Arabic—noted in Arabic script on their badges. The store also has hired a local Arab-American educator to teach the staff cultural sensitivity.
It’s clear as soon as shoppers walk in that this isn’t a typical Wal-Mart. Inside the grocery entrance are 22 produce tables filled with squash, beans and cucumbers common in Middle Eastern dishes. The section also features grains and vegetables popular among blacks and Hispanics, two other demographics with sizable populations living nearby.
More than a year of studying the market and meeting with community groups was put to the test last fall, when Bartell and a Tut’s executive began to work on what would become aisle 3. They set up an 80-foot-long counter in an empty warehouse and hauled out products—date-filled cookies, grape leaves, vacuum-packed olives, chick peas and a 97-ounce jar of olive oil imported from the Middle East. The men spent two weeks working on a way to present a new line of products.
As he recalled their effort, a few women in hijabs—traditional Muslim head scarves—inspected produce. One spoke in Arabic to Mohamad Atwi, the developmental store manager.
Bartell said the store aims to offer convenience—not a comprehensive selection of specialty products.
At the Super Greenland Market, which Wal-Mart studied to come up with its new store, customers can find one whole side of an aisle with more than 20 different varieties of chick peas and fava beans.
Still, the lure of everything under one roof could prove stronger than product depth for some who frequent Middle Eastern shops.
The Dearborn Wal-Mart is part of a two-year-old corporate effort to help sales by tailoring stores to local demographics, said spokeswoman Amy Wyatt-Moore at Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. It targeted six groups: Hispanics, blacks, empty-nesters/boomers, affluent, suburban and rural shoppers.
Dearborn’s store is designed to reflect its neighborhood, not serve as a national template for Arab-American shoppers, she said.