Wal-Mart set to open campus store downtown

The mini-store will open next to RJI in 2014.

Walmart will move downtown next year with Walmart on Campus, the retailer's college town variant.

The store is slated to open on the corner of Ninth Street and Woodson Way as part of the under-construction Lofts at 308 Ninth, a five-story, 64-apartment housing complex that opens to residents next month.

And unlike its multi-acre sister stores — of which there are three already in Columbia — Walmart on Campus is a mere 3,700 square feet, according to plans filed with the city. It is the company’s smallest chain yet, dwarfed even by the 18,000-square-foot Walmart Express.

That leaves ample room for the six other businesses slated to move in with the Lofts: the International Tap House, a bar; Thai Express and Fazoli’s, restaurants; Varsity Nails, a salon; Blenders, a smoothie shop; and the already-opened Tigers Credit Union.

Wal-Mart Communications Director Anne Hatfield said that it is the company’s fourth campus location to date. Since 2011, Walmart on Campus has expanded to Georgia Tech and Arizona State from its origins at the University of Arkansas, just 20 miles from the retail giant’s corporate headquarters.

Columbia’s Walmart on Campus, however, will not be open until the first quarter of 2014, according to Hatfield.

Still, to Hatfield, the store’s location just across the street from the Reynolds Journalism Institute is a step up from current downtown shopping.

“Really, this is a convenience for the students,” she said. “It will stock basic groceries, health and beauty items and general merchandise all at Walmart’s everyday low prices.”

Hatfield confirmed that the campus store will feature a full pharmacy as well as check cashing services. And unlike most local retailers, she said, it offers customers the ability to order products online for in-store pickup.

Supporting the big-box retailer’s foray into “small” business is the Downtown Community Improvement District Board. CID Executive Director Carrie Gartner praised Wal-Mart for offering residents an option that is light on space — and parking, which she said has always been a major concern for incoming businesses.

“Wal-Mart is adapting to us rather than forcing us to adapt to them,” Gartner said. “Everything’s in easy walking distance.”

Gartner also pointed out that there are few chain stores operating downtown as it is; bringing one more in, she claimed, is not necessarily harmful to local businesses.

And the retailer’s downtown debut comes as no surprise to Gartner, who in her 14 years working for the city has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of businesses operating downtown. That area, she said, now houses more than 140 businesses, and the downtown residential population has since quadrupled.

“One thing we’re very good at in Columbia’s central city is focusing on local businesses,” Gartner said.

Gartner also noted that with the introduction of the Lofts and its ground-floor shops, potential businesses and residents alike might see the incentive to move downtown.

“The more people we have, and the more businesses we have,” Gartner said, “the more people and businesses are going to want to come here.”

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