by Charlotte Aguilar
Even though it bears the Walmart imprint and flashes of bright blue around almost every turn, Jeff Randall’s knowledge of the Greater Heights and his marketing smarts are evident at the retailer’s new Yale Street location, which opens Friday and goes into full 24/7 operation.
There are kayaks dangling from the ceiling, for use in exploring nearby Buffalo Bayou. A wide range of bicycles gleam in neat rows (with a higher-end stock soon to be added) to traverse the area’s bike trails. And a full complement of Saint Arnold’s beers is chilling in giant cases to cool down after either of those activities.
Randall is manager of the new 153,000 square foot store that has been something of a bogeyman for two years now, the first in Inner Loop Houston – derisively dubbed the “Heights Walmart” by those who tried to stop its construction and a $6 million tax break to its developers. The store is actually in Washington Heights, along the Washington Avenue corridor that has seen construction of a Target in Sawyer Heights and two surrounding shopping centers, plus a new Kroger, opening tomorrow, without similar protests.
Randall, who has rich memories of spending time in the Heights with his grandfather (Homer Randall, after whom the learning center at Heights House is named, he said proudly), says his experience shows the community and its independent businesses have nothing to fear from Walmart.
“We’re not going to put small merchants out of business,” he said. “They all have their own merchandise and brand of service. We’re here to provide the basics in a lot of areas for people who want one-stop shopping.”
That includes a pharmacy, TGF Haircutters, Woodforest Bank, garden center, office, sewing and arts and craft supplies, electronics center (with TVs eventually as big as 80 inches), sporting goods including hunting and fishing gear (and licenses), a large grocery, home improvement center with a paint matching and mixing service, plus clothing and accessories and health and beauty merchandise – and 22 checkout stands to speed the process of getting in-and-out.
The store has hired 300 workers from an applicant pool of 1,700, says Randall, and will eventually employ 350.
In addition to the retail, the Yale Street Walmart is offering online ordering with onsite pickup when merchandise arrives to save shipping charges, and same-day pickup, where a customer can check if an item is in stock online, reserve it, and then swing by to pick it up.
“It’s our effort to tie in brick-and-mortar retailing with E-commerce,” says Randall.
Randall has a history to back his claims about Walmart. The Houston native joined the giant chain as a cashier when he was a marketing student at then-Southwest Texas State University 25 years ago, and never left. Upon graduation, he entered the Walmart management training program, and has run a succession of stores in the Houston area.
He has high hopes for the new location. “I understand the concerns,” he says, “but I don’t think it will take customers long to realize that we’re going to be a real asset to this neighborhood.”
FRIDAY’S GRAND OPENING
Community and business leaders will join Walmart associates at 8 a.m. Friday for a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Harvard Elementary School Choir and John H. Reagan High School Band will perform the national anthem, and the Reagan Jr. ROTC and Veterans of the Korean War will present the colors. James S. Hogg Middle School students will demonstrate their best karate moves and the Reagan RedCoats will perform a drill team routine. Reagan Cheerleaders will lead a special Walmart cheer to celebrate the grand opening. Store manager Jeff Randall and representatives from the Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce will cut the ribbon. Each of the four schools represented is receiving a $2,000 community grant from Walmart.