Ruth Ireland never bought the first crumb of food from the Walmart Express that opened in her town in 2014, but she still has a rotten taste in her mouth from the place.
“When Walmart said they were coming here, I told the town board, I said, ‘My store is going to be boarded up before it’s over,’ ” said Ireland, who started Town & Country grocery in Oriental and had the store for more than 40 years. “And I was right.”
After struggling for more than a year to hold on to their customers, Ireland said she and her daughter gave up and closed Town & Country last fall. Now Walmart Express is closed, too, leaving Oriental’s 904 residents 10 miles from the nearest grocery and pharmacy.
The Oriental Walmart Express shut its doors for good Thursday night, along with 15 other Express stores in North Carolina and a total of 102 across the country as the nation’s largest retailer ended its experiment with the convenience-store format.
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In North Carolina, the Express stores were in small towns such as Four Oaks, Carthage and Coats, areas that Walmart identified as “underserved communities,” most of which had only one or two other grocery stores.
As the Express stores went up, they often caused concern for local businesses, some of whose operators feared they would not be able to match prices with Walmart, which uses its huge volume to negotiate deals with suppliers. But with the notable exception of Oriental on the southeastern edge of economically depressed Pamlico County, towns in North Carolina where Express stores opened did not lose their existing grocers and drug stores.
“I don’t think there is ever a time when any competitor opens that you’re not concerned about it,” said Larry Wilson, vice president of the 17-store Carlie C’s IGA, based in Dunn. But when Walmart Express opened in the Harnett County town of Coats just down the road from Carlie C’s, Wilson says his store was ready.
“You go to battle just like you would with anyone,” he said.
In small towns, shoppers often engage in the battle, especially if the contenders are a locally owned business and the Bentonville, Ark.,-based mega-retailer that many people love to hate. Sometimes, residents of a community organize in opposition to a planned Walmart store; such a fight is underway in the Onslow County town of Swansboro. Walmart has plans for a Supercenter there, which some area residents say will change the character of the town by causing small businesses to go under and create traffic problems and hazards for children attending schools near the site.
In Coats, Wilson said, “Certainly we had people who refused to go” to Walmart Express. “I couldn’t say we didn’t lose any customers. It was another alternative. I think you had some people who were dual shopping, going to both.”
Wilson said his customers remain loyal because Carlie C’s provides personalized service, and quality products, from their secret-recipe fried chicken to the meats that are all cut in the store to the layer cakes made in the bakery.
“Our company is based upon love,” Wilson said. “Part of that love is being able to recognize and acknowledge and meet our customers’ needs. We are on a first-name basis with a lot of our customers. We will hold the store open late if they need something and we will open it early. We’re there to serve the community, not to be a sponge off of them.”
Coats Town Manager Kenny Cole said his main concern is what will happen to the 36 or so people who worked there.
Across the state, Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said, Express stores had from about two dozen to three dozen employees each, a mix of full- and part-time. Workers will be paid through Feb. 10, he said, while the company tries to place as many as possible into other stores. Employees will get 60 additional days of “transition pay” as well, he said. After that, employees who have been with the company for at least a year and who don’t transfer to other stores may receive severance pay.
Some of those who lost jobs when the Walmart Express in Oriental Closed will relocate to stores in Grantsboro or New Bern.
Despite some opposition, there had been much excitement over the opening of the Oriental store; many were happy to see something new come to their town. While there is a Walmart Supercenter 20 minutes away in Grantsboro, some shoppers were happy to have the scaled-down version of the discount retailer close enough to walk or bike to from their homes.
When the store opened, Oriental’s residents were particularly glad the store came with a pharmacy, as the town had been without one since its last independent pharmacist died.
“We have an older population,” said Diane Miller, Oriental’s town manager. “And a lot of them don’t drive. They walk, they may ride a bike, they may get around on a golf cart. A lot of them can’t get to a store that’s 15 miles away.”
At the Inland Waterway Provision Company, Pat Stockwell has added some locally grown produce to the sail repair tape and other boating provisions he sells, and volunteers are organizing in case it becomes necessary to make food or pharmacy deliveries from Bayboro and Grantsboro for the town’s shut-ins. But mostly, people are hoping that another entrepreneur will see the same opportunity here that Walmart saw in 2011, and that Ruth Ireland saw before that.
“We all keep saying, ‘Somebody will come in here and open a grocery store,’ ” Stockwell said. “We just hope somebody will take that leap of faith.”
CLARIFICATION: Details about Walmart workers’ pay status after Feb. 10, 2016, has been updated on Jan. 31, 2016.