There Goes the Neighborhood Market

Eight inches of snow blanketed the frozen ground as shoppers poured into the Walmart Neighborhood Market for the very last time. The retail juggernaut announced it would be shuttering 269 of its stores worldwide, and the Gallatin Avenue location had not made the cut. The closing sign was hoisted, prices were slashed, and the store began the descent toward its imminent demise, leaving East Siders wondering what would come next.
     In the days prior to its closing, an eerie, almost apocalyptic scene began to unfold. The deli with hot bar items and prepared foods was consumed first, then the meat and fresh produce sections to follow as the shelves of canned goods and other sundries deteriorated in the frenzy. Elderly shoppers clutched at their winter layers, wandering slowly through barren aisles and filling shopping carts to maximum capacity.
     “This is bittersweet,” District 5 Council Member Scott Davis noted about the market’s closing. “The bad news is that the immediate neighborhood is losing quick access to decent food at a reasonable price. The good news is that it opens up a lot of opportunity for the other grocery stores in the area, including the Walmart Supercenter on Dickerson Pike, Turnip Truck, and the two Krogers.”
     District 6 Council Member Brett Withers weighed in on the area’s food climate: “No, it is certainly not a food desert; it is the opposite of a food desert, in fact.”
This high number of competing grocery stores has most residents chalking Walmart’s closing to an overly saturated market. But more persnickety critics blame the store’s losses on everything from a dirty parking lot and poorly stocked shelves to theft and even an apathetic staff. But according to Walmart Director of Communications Anne Hatfield, the company is simply moving in a different direction.
     “There is absolutely no truth to the rumors of theft,” Hatfield sternly stated. “Our CEO, Doug McMillon, indicated at our annual analyst meeting last fall that we would be closing a percentage of stores. This is a strategic move about our long-term success as we move forward.”
     As news of Walmart’s announcement spread, some community members rejoiced in glorious jubilation, rallying others on social media platforms to lure grocery chains like Publix and Trader Joe’s to take over the empty space. Yet other members of the community questioned whether a Publix or Trader Joe’s would be well-suited to meet the needs of Walmart’s customer base. Critics felt elated, but how did the store’s dedicated shoppers feel?
     “I don’t like this, because this is convenient for me,” said Gregory Watson, a longtime shopper at the neighborhood market, who filled his cart with various food items two days before the shutdown. “I’m really going to miss the deli the most. If I’ve been working all day and I’m tired, I know I can come in here and purchase whatever kind of meat I want already prepared. Then when I get home, I can put my side items in a pot and I don’t have to worry too much about dinner.”
     Myrtle Williamson, an older Walmart shopper accompanied by a younger companion, expressed her disappointment. “This isn’t good for me,” she said. “I’m living right down the street. Now, I will start shopping at the Rivergate or Madison stores.”
     The disconnect between Walmart’s critics and its dedicated shoppers has some community members concerned over a continued disenfranchisement of individuals in East Nashville. “I think a lot of people tend to associate with people who are like themselves, and so they may not have a big-picture look at the whole neighborhood and the whole district,” Withers said. “The statistics bear out that though it is shrinking, there still is a lot of poverty in our community. And though there is nothing wrong with having a Publix — choices are always wonderful — I think that a certain socioeconomic class might benefit from it more.”
     Exactly what will fill the vacant building now that Walmart has pulled out is uncertain, but what does prove true is that both East Nashville fans and critics alike are expressing the same hopes for the future loud and clear: that another grocery store — a place that provides fresh produce, prepared foods, and a decent selection at an affordable price — takes Walmart’s place. Yet unlike critics, shoppers are more doubtful that Walmart will actually deliver.
     “I’d like to see another grocery here, but I doubt Walmart will do that,” shopper Rebecca Freeman remarked as she leaned one elbow on her shopping cart. “I hope to see a store that will meet the needs of all the community rather than some kind of business that might take advantage of people.”
     When asked how she felt about a Publix or Trader Joe’s moving in, Freeman expressed excitement followed by a gloomier speculation. “I’d love to see either a Publix or Trader Joe’s, but will Walmart make a decision to sell this building to them? I just don’t know.”
     Williamson’s younger companion, Ricardo Spence, agreed that Publix would be a good match. “We would love to see another grocery store here,” he said, “even though I can see a Planet Fitness or something similar taking its place.”
     These fears from within the community are not baseless; Walmart has a well-known reputation for hoarding properties and refusing to sell or lease to competitors, a business strategy that has left communities stuck with empty buildings and/or mediocre retail options.
     According to Hatfield, however, the company seems open to selling or leasing the property to any competition. “My understanding is that we will not have any restrictions on the future use of the property,” she said. “We will list it and either sell or lease it. But, more than likely, we will sell it.”
      Whatever the future holds for the vacant Walmart Neighborhood Market, Council Member Withers encourages residents to explore other established options. “I don’t endorse one business or the other, but I would encourage people to check out the Aldi,” he said. “I think people would be pleasantly surprised.”
     Withers also noted that the East Nashville Farmers Market begins its season in Shelby Park the first week of May. Between it and locally owned Turnip Truck, organic produce in East Nashville is in heavy supply without a Trader Joe’s landing on the local food scene.

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