Wal-Mart’s Express stores, such as the new Chicago location, are about a tenth of the size of typical Supercenter.
Wal-Mart’s Express stores, such as the new Chicago location, are about a tenth of the size of typical Supercenter.

Wal-Mart Stores’ urban expansion has reached Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood, and based on opening day, the country’s biggest food retailer found friendly confines in the North Side of the city.

Shoppers interviewed outside Wal-Mart’s new Express store Nov. 30, the day the Wrigleyville location opened, had mostly positive reviews, saying prices for food and other items compared favorably with other supermarkets in the area.

“It’s a great addition to the neighborhood,” said Susan, who would only provide her first name. Prices seemed competitive with other groceries, she said, adding that she was encouraged to see businesses add jobs to the neighborhood during a slow economy.

Wal-Mart is angling for even more city-dwellers as the Bentonville, Ark.-based company accelerates store openings in Chicago and other large markets, such as New York City and Washington, D.C. Beef, pork, milk and other fresh foods are playing a large role in the effort. The Wrigleyville store, like two the others Wal-Mart launched in other parts of Chicago earlier this year, features fresh produce, meat and dairy sections just inside the entrance.

The Wrigleyville Express “can be part of the solution for local customers who want more affordable grocery options close to home,” store manager Jack Williams said in a Nov. 30 Wal-Mart statement announcing the opening.

“As we continue to evaluate sites across the city, we’ll also continue to be flexible in our approach to ensure that store sizes and formats are a reflection of the surrounding neighborhood,” Williams said.

Wal-Mart plans six additional, mostly smaller-format stores in Chicago by spring 2013.

Express stores are among the smaller formats Wal-Mart is rolling out in densely-populated areas where building new, 185,000 square-foot Supercenters is out of the question. The Wrigleyville store, Wal-Mart’s first on the city’s North Side, occupies 14,800 square feet in a three-story building that previously housed a dairy processor, a candy maker and a greeting card company since being constructed in 1928, according to Landmarks Chicago.

Wal-Mart steps into an already-competitive retail environment. Within two miles of the Wrigleyville store, there are five supermarkets run by the dominant local grocery chain Jewel-Osco, a unit of Supervalu Inc., along with two Aldi stores, a Target and a Treasure Island, a Chicago-based independent retailer.

But based on the Nov. 30 interviews, some locals may already be defecting to the new kid on the block.

“I love it,” said Rose, who also would only give her first name, as she and a friend loaded groceries they’d just purchased at the Express into the trunk of their SUV. “Everything was cheaper” than other nearby stores, Rose said. They likely will return to the Express store, Rose said, “and we work at Jewel.”

Wal-Mart finds friendly confines with new Chicago storeOn Nov. 30, the Express offered choice-grade, thin-sliced New York strip steaks for $8.28 a pound and boneless pork chops for $4.48 a pound, both above the national averages for similar cuts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, boneless pork chops averaged $4.08 a pound at retail during October, up 4.9 percent from a year earlier.

Average national prices for New York strip steak aren’t available, though boneless sirloin steak averaged $6.32 a pound during October, according to government figures.

Wal-Mart finds friendly confines with new Chicago storeDean’s vitamin D milk was $3.98 a gallon at the Express, while a Wal-Mart store brand was $1 cheaper. During October, whole milk averaged $3.62 nationwide, up 9 percent from a year earlier, according to the government.

Along with a Supercenter that opened on the city’s West Side in 2006, Wal-Mart now operates 20 stores in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

Wal-Mart is emphasizing smaller stores in large cities as sales at Supercenter sales in the company’s core rural and suburban markets emerge from a two-year slump. Nationwide, the company as of July had 4,431 stores, including 2,939 Supercenters and nearly 200 smaller-format locations, according to Wal-Mart’s website.