Day #47: Walk-n-Shop

(Retail Business Journal, DALLAS) – In a blast from the past, a major supermarket chain recently opened an old-fashioned walk-n-shop mall in Dallas’ tony Preston Hollow neighborhood. The last walk-in-shop, a retail format widely considered a legacy of a more leisurely time, closed in 2019.

The developers, Universal Mall Corporation, are the largest operators of remote shopping in the country. In 2012, they partnered with Nintendo to use an advanced ‘Wii’ interface to allow shoppers to remote shopping carts remotely and virtually cruise aisles. Using feedback technology, their customers could even ‘feel’ fruits and vegetables. The format overcame the many shortcomings of Internet grocery shopping, bringing remote shopping into the mainstream. The business took off as consumers nationwide realized the time that could be saved, and supermarket chains realized the added benefits of retasking what had become oversized parking lots and other legacy shopping overheads.

The rollout of similar remote systems to the workplace eliminated commuting times for many workers while improving road safety and addressing long-standing congestion issues.

By 2017, only 3% of workers reporting having the time to drive to a supermarket to shop. Two years later, the last American walk-n-shop market, in retirement friendly Florida, closed.

Now UMC, of all companies, is trying to revive the walk-n-shop format. CEO Timothy Bluestone, in a recent press conference, explained, “There is a class of luxury shoppers who, like the organic shoppers in the 00s, understand the value of returning to basics. These shopper’s children learn actual ballet instead of virtual ballet, many of these shoppers play actual pianos and they like to meet up in actual restaurants. We wanted to bring them a touch o the old world, where they could do all of that in one place while enjoying the leisurely pleasure of shopping in person.”

The analyst community did not share Bluestone’s enthusiasm for the project. Retail analyst Mark Zazbee did not change his “HOLD” recommendation on UMC stock, “This is a small project, so risks are minimal. That said, in this day and age, there is a limited upside.”

Fred Goonder of GoldSteam Partners concurred, “I can see people visiting this as tourists. Perhaps, as with period parks, they could charge admissions. But actual pricing in this format simply can’t compete with modern shopping options. People will visit, but they won’t buy.”

Jim Dougal of FinanceTargeting LLC agreed, “This is a low-risk, low-reward venture. The fact is physical retail was a highly mature art – an art that has been lost. UMC might sink significant money into this venture, but they can’t bring back the past.”

A recent visit to the mall reinforced these notions. The facility was crowded and the food court was active – but otherwise, nobody was buying anything aside from token ‘Walk-n-Shop’ souvenirs.

— Joseph Cox contributed to this report.