TURNERSVILLE, NJ-The Washington Township Planning Board has approved Wal-Mart’s proposal to expand its existing store by 85,000 sf, a move that will enable the retail giant to convert its local unit into the Supercenter format, which includes a supermarket married to the traditional discount department store. Construction is expected to begin later this year, pending permits, and the Supercenter would be completed about one year after work begins.

While the news might not seem particularly earth-shattering, it is a major step in Wal-Mart’s growth in the Garden State. While some 1,750 of the company’s 3,200 stores nationally are in the so-called Supercenter format, the pending expansion marks the initial such unit in New Jersey, called by many the nation’s most competitive and highest-priced retail market.

As far as why it has taken so long for the Bentonville, AR-based company to bring its Supercenter format to New Jersey, “sites and space are at a premium, and there just aren’t many locations available,” according to one retail industry observer. “Wal-Mart has been waiting for the chance to bring in a cluster of the Supercenter stores. They would probably need at least 10 locations to make it possible from a logistical sense, because you don’t truck in frozen foods and other food products for just one store.”

Indeed, Wal-Mart is slated to open at least 10 stores in New Jersey this year, mostly in South Jersey, according to company officials, and an unspecified number are expected to be Supercenters. Local officials in Deptford Township have already turned down a proposed Supercenter, but Wal-Mart has another proposal pending near Glassboro, and one in Cherry Hill.

Union opposition, notably from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has been another factor slowing non-union Wal-Mart’s introduction of the Supercenter format in New Jersey. Union officials have said publicly that they will continue to battle the retail giant at planning board and council meetings.

In any case, the expansion here is coming at Cross Keys Commons, a 370,000-sf shopping center owned by a subsidiary of the Boston-based Heritage Property Investment Trust. The local Wal-Mart is the oldest in the Garden State, dating back to 1991.

Paving the way for the Supercenter expansion was last year’s closure of an existing Acme supermarket. Under the newly approved plan, some 40,000 sf of retail space adjacent to the existing Wal-Mart store would to razed to make way for the 85,000-sf addition, according to company officials. Fashion Bug and Famous Footwear, which currently occupy the space to be demolished, would be moved to the now-vacant Acme space.

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