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The Incredible, Vanishing Wal-Mart

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Wal-Mart has stumbled onto something really big: stores that are really small.

After ripping up our nation's landscape for nearly half a century, Wal-Mart has discovered that you can open up a store 1,000 square feet in size -- and then fold it up and disappear two months later.

If only we could do that to their 200,000 square foot superstores!

The industry calls these ephemeral outlets "pop-up" stores -- and I have to admit -- I like the concept of a store that can vanish overnight. It's a retail form of guerrilla theater.

Wal-Mart has become very adept at shutting down stores. Since the 1990s, Wal-Mart has closed down more stores than its competitors will ever open. As of last month, Wal-Mart Realty had 12 million square feet of "dark stores" to sell or lease. The giant retailer often hires regional real estate brokers to move all their empty inventory.

Wal-Mart realized years ago that grocery stores attract more foot traffic than almost any other retail format, because you and I buy bananas and bread more often than we buy underwear or lawn furniture. So they began abandoning hundreds of discount stores that they couldn't remake into superstores.

CSP Daily News reports this week that Wal-Mart has opened up two tiny pop-up stores in Southern California. "This is just a small test we're conducting during the holiday season," a Wal-Mart spokesman told CSP," to offer local customers easier, more convenient access to quality products at everyday low prices."

These Cinderella stores will turn into pumpkins on December 31st. The mini-mini format offers shoppers access to a million items through the remarkably boring and unattractive walmart.com portal -- a website devoid of all visual appeal, a jumble of Turkey Fryers and Personalized "Bless This Home" Doormats.

Hundreds of citizens groups over the past twenty years have prayed that the Wal-Mart superstore perched on the edge of town would just melt away in the night. Now Wal-Mart has created a pop-up store that dashes away after Christmas like Old Saint Nick. It's Wal-Mart's present to the environment -- and a dream come true for sprawl-busters.

CSP News notes that "larger store floor plans are becoming less necessary at some chains, as shoppers buy products online." Wal-Mart America is carrying 4,400 brick and mortar chain stores around its waist like the chains on Marley's ghost. With each passing month, as electronic sales eat up market share, Wal-Mart's superstores look more and more like oversized dino-stores, the equivalent of an ice age business model.

In the same CSP article, a retail analyst explained: "If they [retailers] could wave a wand, a lot of them would completely reconfigure their stores. They'd probably close a lot of stores and the remaining stores would be smaller."

Pocket stores may be the next "big" thing in retailing. And wouldn't it be grand if, on December 31st, we could wave a wand and all the Wal-Mart superstores would disappear, like the pop up stores in West L.A. and San Diego.

One of the greatest threats to Wal-Mart's sustainability over the next decade is its bloated inventory of stores. A company so proud of its logistics technology realizes that a virtual retail store can fit inside any smart phone. Now that Wal-Mart has shrunk itself to 1,000 square feet -- the next step is to vanish altogether.

Al Norman is the founder of sprawl-busters. He has been helping citizens groups fight big box sprawl for the past 18 years.