American retailers remodel thousands of stores each year, but the process is rarely smooth. Now imagine the headaches for Walmart, which overhauls 500 locations annually on its own.
“Things always come up that you can’t plan for,” according to Tara Barnes, a store manager in Allen, Texas, whose location went through a refurbishment this summer.
In the past year, the retailer has quietly rolled out “SWAT teams” — small groups of remodeling specialists who go from store to store in big markets such as Atlanta and Dallas, near where Barnes’s outlet is located. Working at night, they tackle jobs such as building fixtures to display apparel and moving counters so new floors can be installed. (General contractors do the more specialized jobs like electrical work.) There are 1,000 SWAT team members now, and the squad will rise to 1,700 by the end of next year as it expands to 13 new markets.
“Their entire focus is on remodels now,” said Don Wetherby, a senior vice president at WD Partners, a retail design and architectural firm that works with Walmart. “You can’t rely on the store operators to do that — they’ve got a store to run. If you have a roving team that understands how it all works, it’s more efficient.”
Walmart — which has about 4,750 locations in the U.S. — won’t disclose how much a typical remodel costs, or how much it’s saving thanks to the swat teams. But with the retailer opening fewer stores because of the rise of e-commerce, the importance of cutting costs and minimizing customer disruptions is difficult to overstate. Its shares have risen 29% this year, just ahead of the benchmark S&P 500 Index.
In some ways, Walmart is late to the game. Since 1998, electronics retailer Best Buy has maintained dozens of “project teams” for work like remodels, relocations and store repairs. Target has specialized groups as well. The cheap-chic retailer has remodeled more than 700 stores since 2017 and will complete 1,000 in total — more than half its entire fleet — by the end of next year.
When asked why the company didn’t create the SWAT teams earlier, Walmart Vice President of Realty Operations Jack Williams, a 29-year company veteran, confessed he “wasn’t sure.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said.
Jobs on the renovation SWAT team start at $16 an hour, well above Walmart’s starting wage of $11. That’s helped bring in recruits like Penny Hambrick, 48, who was hired five years ago as a stocker but was ready for a change. Her team of about 30 people work night shifts, causing less disruption than the temp workers who previously came during the day. The goal is to reduce the average time a remodel takes with the SWAT team to 10 weeks from 12.
The job keeps Hambrick’s crew on their toes: During a recent remodel in Southern California, they had just moved an entire department outside the store temporarily, only to get hit by rainstorms.
The work is often physical, she said, but at times “more cerebral,” requiring them to analyze blueprints. The teams also handle smaller projects, like installing a 16-foot-tall pickup tower that dispenses online orders.
“It’s not just putting clothes on a hanger,” she said.