Big Box Store Bashing

10/05/2010 11:53 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I live in tiny, bucolic Joshua, Texas. Horses abound on neighbors' property. The nearest supermarket, one I don't use often, is more than two miles away. The nearest Walmart, which I use daily, is about nine miles from my house. From what I'm told, when the big box Walmsrt Superstore arrived--before I left New York for Texas--some other smaller stores went the way of the dinosaur. And it's not difficult to see why: Walmart's grocery aisles have prices that few stores can match. When corn at store closer to my home is selling at 2/$1.00, and Walmart has it for $0.25 each, it becomes the natural choice for a dad raising kids and animals. I once did a price check on a weekly grocery basket between my local Walmart and one of its local competitors and the Walmart price came to about $300, while the competitor's price for the same basket came to just over $450.
And that was before the economy crashed. You can imagine that $600 a month means even more these days.
At the same time I was shopping at Walmart though, I wished there was someone who could compete with them. Someone smaller, more intimate. A store with a few less choices in bar-be-que sauce, perhaps, but which carried really good fresh fish and veggies. It just didn't seem fair that Walmart, despite having everything from inexpensive groceries to $5 flat tire repairs, should have no competition, and that people living on journalist's incomes--or delivery people, or gas station employees--essentially had no choice in where to shop.
A couple of weeks ago that competition arrived in the form of a new, even bigger box H-E-B store, just two blocks from Walmart. H-E-B, which is short for H.E. Butt Grocery Company, is a privately owned company out of San Antonio, Texas, with more than 315 stores in Texas and northern Mexico, if Wikipedia's entry on the company is accurate. The company also owns Central Market, a small upscale chain of supermarkets with some of the finest meat, bread, veggies and fish in all of Texas. The nearest Central Market to my house, however, is just outside of Fort Worth's downtown, about 25 miles away. And those upscale goodies cost upscale money. I generally make a run there just once a week for swordfish, Atlantic salmon, fresh squid and a good chuck steak. The swordfish runs $18.99 a pound; the salmon $9.95. A bill for all four items generally runs about $80. So that's a once-a-week treat for several main courses. But I skip the rest of the store: the products may not be as good at Walmart, but it's definitely more affordable.
So I greeted the arrival of H-E-B with curiosity. I waited a couple of days after it opened before I went in. I have never seen as large a grocery store. They boast over 900 varieties of fruits and veggies, hundreds of them organic. They have freshly made sushi, breads, cakes, rolls and pies all made on premises from scratch. They've got hundreds of wines, many of which my local liquor store claims they can't even get. And they have fish. Swordfish was just $5.99 the other day; Atlantic salmon $4.99. (Those prices are going up after the grand opening to $11.99 and $7.99, respectively, I was told, but that still beats the heck out their sister Central Market's prices.)
At 88,000 square feet, two full acres, it is such a huge store that you could get in shape just jogging around it a couple of times every day. I certainly have not seen it all in my couple of visits, and have no real intention to. Cereal aisles have never been my thing. But I will get my fish there, and an occasional loaf of bread and one of these days I'll meander through the several aisles of fruits and veggies.
And it has hit Walmart hard, at least in the first week of action. I know because I have no trouble getting a good parking space at Walmart these days. And if they can keep their prices competitive, or continue to undercut Walmart, well, the bigger box may put a hurting on the former neighborhood bully.
The funny part is now that Walmart has taken a hit, it no longer feels like a bully. And with fewer shoppers in there, it seems, well, a little cozier than it used to be. I never thought I'd write that about Walmart, but I just did. These must be the end times, eh?