Store Formats Change After Katrina

Customers shop in a newly reopened Wal-Mart with plywood walls in Waveland, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2005. The store is one of the first retailers to re-open following Hurricane Katrina.
No other Wal-Mart in the country looks like the one that reopened here more than two months after Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped the town off the map.

Pallets of space heaters, box fans, mops and buckets are stacked on the floor. Plywood walls hide workers still repairing what used to be the food department.

Wal-Mart is one of a handful of retailers along the Gulf Coast that have tailored their reopened stores to meet the basic needs of their hurricane-weary customers, stocking shelves with large quantities of hardware, appliances, no-frills clothes, dry food and other post-disaster products.

"It's a real uplifting thing," Jim Freeman, 60, said as he and his wife, Nina, filled a shopping cart with food. "You take a lot of things for granted until it's all gone."

Best Buy on Friday opened a first-of-its-kind store in Gulfport, converting a former grocery store into a warehouse-style store with roughly twice as much floor space for appliances as a normal store. The rest of the space is still for computers, televisions and other electronics, but compact discs and DVDs won't be sold there right away.

A Home Depot in eastern New Orleans partially reopened Thursday, 81 days after the hurricane filled it with six feet of water. The store sells only building materials and appliances and uses only half of the original store's space.

Almost all of Waveland's stores are vacant and littered with debris, but the Wal-Mart's parking lot was nearly full Saturday when the store opened for the first time since the hurricane flooded it with 14 feet of water.

Waveland's "Wal-Mart Express" is roughly one-third of the size of the original 205,800-square-foot "Supercenter."

Store manager Ray Cox said his inventory will change as residents go from cleaning up their homes to rebuilding them.

"It's quick, it's easy and we can change on the fly," he said.

Other retailers are sticking to their standard format: When Target reopens a hurricane-damaged store in Beaumont, Texas, it will look like any other store in the chain, said company spokeswoman Lena Michaud.

"What our guests have told us is that they like being able to come into a place that is back to normal and reminds them of life before the hurricane," she said.

Richard Hastings, a retail analyst for Bernard Sands in New York, said Wal-Mart and other retailers have nothing to lose by opening these experimental stores in hurricane-affected areas.

"They're helping the community, no question about it, and they're going to recapture the market down there," he said.

Wal-Mart doesn't have much competition in Waveland yet. Other stores along Highway 90 are in shambles. A fast-food restaurant and several convenience stores are the only other businesses that have reopened, residents said.

While the store's interior was being gutted and repaired, Wal-Mart sold some basic items out of a tent in the parking lot. The nearest grocery store was about a half-hour drive.

"It's definitely a sign of recovery when Wal-Mart comes back," said shopper Sharon Adams.

Nearly 100 of the Waveland Wal-Mart's employees have returned to work, out of a pre-Katrina force of about 400.

"It gives me hope and it gives me stability," said Melisa Jones, 39, whose family is living in a mobile home provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It makes me want to move on instead of give up."
By Michael Kunzelman