A new Wal-Mart opened early Wednesday morning at Sun Valley Boulevard and Interstate 35 in Hewitt, only four miles and a drive of about six minutes from another Wal-Mart at 600 Hewitt Drive in Waco. Customers visiting both locations said they look forward to watching the two battle for their share of the market.
“This is nice, nice and big,” said Karen Rucker, 57, of Waco, eyeing the wide aisles, neat display areas and an array of products at the new 156,000-square-foot Wal-Mart in Hewitt at mid-afternoon. “But I am a little bit surprised they built so close to each other, and I think they may pull from each other.”
She and her husband, Gino Rucker, 59, repeated a rumor whispered by others that Wal-Mart will convert the store on Hewitt Drive to a Sam’s Club.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Anne Hatfield said in an email response to questions that Wal-Mart has no intention of making such a switch.
“Not sure where those reports are originating from, but we have no plans to convert that store to a Sam’s Club,” Hatfield wrote. “For context, it is not uncommon for there to be more than one store in a city, especially as communities grow. Each store serves customers in different parts of town.”
Several shoppers said they think customers living in Woodway, McGregor and parts of West Waco will continue to patronize the store at 600 Hewitt Drive, while those living in Lorena and Robinson, and travelers along Interstate 35, will choose to visit the new store in Hewitt’s Commerce Park.
“I think people will visit the new one for a time and then make a habit of shopping at the one that is closer to their home,” said Ashley Goldada, 31, of Robinson.
Goldada filled her cart at the older Wal-Mart on Hewitt Drive and expressed disappointment at missing, at least temporarily, the opening of the new store only minutes away.
Cory Reimer, who manages the new Wal-Mart, threw open doors to the 24-hour store during a brief ceremony at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“Traffic today has been excellent,” Reimer said Wednesday evening. “I don’t have specifics on the number who entered, but we’ve had a steady stream of customers, especially this afternoon. The feedback I’ve received has been positive, with people telling us how friendly the associates are and how bright and clean the store is.”
A visit to the new Wal-Mart on Wednesday afternoon revealed mascots, including Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, walking the aisles, and employees parked near the door to offer health screenings. Employees in blue-and-yellow Wal-Mart apparel appeared on nearly every aisle, many wearing smiles and eager expressions.
Martin Basio, 29, said he previously worked in the stockrooms of local Ross and Marshalls stores and now finds himself on the sales floor of the new Wal-Mart.
“Today, I’m stoked. I love this place,” Basio said with a broad smile.
He said his task is to assist customers however possible and to make them want to come back.
Basio was paying special attention to the hardware section but was told to help out in other areas if they got busy.
Reimer said he is operating the store with a staff of about 300 that includes “a healthy mix of full- and part-time employees.”
Asked what sets his store apart from its counterpart on Hewitt Drive, Reimer said, “We have a drive- thru pharmacy and a fuel station we operate differently than Murphy Gas.”
Murphy USA is a chain of gas stations and convenience stores that place their locations near Wal-Mart stores, including the one on Hewitt Drive.
Reimer, like many of his customers Wednesday, said he thinks the store will draw from Robinson, Lorena and Bruceville-Eddy and will pull traffic off I-35.
“I don’t really have any particulars about where the other store may draw from,” he said. “I assume it will continue to get customers from Waco and parts of Hewitt.”
Scott Bland, president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, said national homebuilders, including StyleCraft and D.R. Horton, continue to see the potential of the area and have revved up to build more homes locally, creating customers for retailers such as Wal-Mart.
“Just think about what a retailer could be drawing from existing subdivisions such as SunWest, Stone Creek Ranch, Badger Ranch, Harris Creek. There is so much untapped potential out there. I could see Highway 84 looking like Hewitt Drive in 10 years. And how well do you think a SuperTarget would do out there, which we don’t have?”
Bland said a few years ago it would have been “crazy” to suggest “two big huge Wal-Marts would go up within four miles of each other, but we’re getting pretty big. . . . And let’s not forget the Wal-Mart on Franklin Avenue. It’s not really that far away from all that’s going on in that area.”
Anyone who questions the placement of the new Wal-Mart “should remember that Wal-Mart did not get to be Wal-Mart by making mistakes,” Bland said.
Gene Walker, 81, a Waco resident, said he visited the new Wal-Mart on Wednesday “just to check out the place.”
Scotty Smith, 21, a Hewitt resident, visited the new store twice during the day, saying he could not get enough of the place.
“I live practically next door and I’ll have Wal-Mart for a neighbor,” Smith said. “I used to throw a football around on this very site.”
He said he used to shop at the Wal-Mart on Hewitt Drive, but no more, “because Hewitt Drive can get pretty busy at times.”
Festivities to introduce the community to Hewitt’s new Wal-Mart are not over. A “Big Family Welcome” is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.