The world's largest retailer is entering the sphere of higher education.
In January 2011, Walmart opened its first location on a university campus at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a half-hour drive from its corporate headquarters. Now, Walmart has announced that it will be opening a second campus location, at Arizona State University, with luck by May, according to Delia Garcia, a Walmart spokeswoman. A third location, at Georgia Tech, is slated to open at a to-be-determined time next year. “Walmart on campus is an opportunity to bring low prices to students, reach new customers and serve our on-campus customers in a convenient way,” Garcia said in an interview.
Garcia said that the products sold by the university stores would be “tailored to the on-campus customer, providing general merchandise, convenience items [and] pharmacy services,” as well as the store’s $4 generic prescription drug program. Garcia emphasized that the company was still “testing this format,” and as such there are no concrete plans beyond the Georgia Tech location. While the Arkansas location is 2,500 square feet, the Arizona location as planned will be 5,000 square feet. The ASU location will also offer financial and bill-paying services, and will employ 10 associates.
“The store will not carry textbooks, but will stock merchandise that is relevant for the on-campus customer, such as school supplies," Garcia added via e-mail.
Charles Schmidt of the National Association of College Stores said that campus bookstores need not be afraid of Walmart. "In general, while competition can make you work harder, it likewise keeps you sharp and forces you to be a smarter, more efficient retailer," Schmidt said via e-mail."[S]tudents already are going to big-box discounters, but at least if they’re in the same vicinity as your store, they are more liable to come in and give you the chance to 'show them what you’ve got.' Kind of a 'mall' effect."
As has often been the case with Walmart, the expansion is not free of controversy. In an e-mailed statement, the labor group Making Change at Walmart criticized the company for paying what it says are insufficient wages, “while public institutions like ASU have faced painful budget cuts.”
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that ‘donations’ from Walmart or the Walton family come with strings attached – whether that be helping to greenwash the company’s image or helping fuel Walmart’s expansion onto college campuses,” reads the statement in part. “As Walmart seeks to expand its reach beyond our main streets and into campuses across the country, we hope that our institutions of higher education will hold Walmart accountable for providing their communities with living wages, safe work conditions and jobs with dignity and respect that are free from retaliation.”
In addition, according to a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, the University of Arkansas (via the university's Applied Sustainability Center) and Arizona State (via the university's Global Institute of Sustainability) are "the two universities Walmart picked to create its ‘Sustainability Index,' which has been criticized for lacking meaningful standards and appears to have had little to no effect on suppliers’ product manufacturing processes.” Rob Walton, Walmart founder Sam Walton’s eldest son and current company chairman, is also co-chair of the Board of Directors for Sustainability at Arizona State.
Garcia said that there was no connection between the partnership and the decision to open the stores, while Elizabeth Kessler of Arizona State said via e-mail that the university's branch of the Sustainability Consortium “ha[s] no direct connection to the Walmart On Campus program and therefore ha[s] no information about the selection process."