When news broke on Thursday that the Sam’s Club in Lumberton would be closing, possibly putting as many as 150 people in the unemployment line, the first-blush assumption was that the store simply had not met expectations, and its parent company, Walmart, was cutting losses after a 10-and-a-half-year go.
But it soon became known that the local Sam’s Club was one of 63 out of 660 nationally that Walmart was closing, which is more of a strategic decision than an indictment of the local club’s success. To be sure, if Lumberton Sam’s Club had better business, it might have survived, but we have a hunch that Walmart has other plans for it.
Walmart has said that “up to 12” of the Sam’s Clubs will be repurposed as “e-commerce fulfillment center,” a strange name for what amounts to a warehouse stuffed with inventory and properly positioned so merchandise can be delivered quickly to those who do their shopping online. It is clear Amazon is grabbing market share from Walmart, inspiring it to go on the offense and try to grab back consumers who shop with a mouse.
Walmart has announced only one e-commerce site, that being in Memphis, Tenn., and we assume will run the computer models to find the best strategic locations for the other 11 or so sites. All else being even, and it never is, that would give Lumberton an 11 out of 62 shot, which is less than an 18 percent chance, not something to put coin on.
But those odds go up greatly we believe because the Lumberton location is located a few hundred yards from Interstate 95, providing an incredible north-south highway to homes up and down the East Coast. Additionally, Robeson County is blessed with a lot more good highway in many directions, including U.S. 74, which provides the east-west route.
We don’t know how many people such a warehouse would employ, and guess it would be an unsatisfying fraction of those 150 lost jobs, but it’s critical that progress at Exit 22 — and there is plenty of it despite wetland issues — not have a 135,000-square-foot elephant standing in the way.
Should Walmart not select Lumberton for an e-commerce site, it’s probable that another giant retailer would find that building — or at least its location — beneficial. For a long time, Exit 22 was seen as a potential site for a large shopping center and such retail giants as Kohl’s and Target were among some of the names that were floated. A shopping center appears dead as there are wetlands issues that appear too expensive to overcome — but the Sam’s Club was constructed on high ground.
We know that following the bad news, immediately Lumberton officials were in contact with a private company already under contract that works to recruit such retail companies for the city.
Last week’s bad news is hard to put a pretty bow on for the 150 employees whose lives have been turned upside. Walmart has provided a decent severance and the promise to try to find work for them at nearby Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs, so we hope that can happen for plenty of them.
But as bad as the news was for the city and fans of Sam’s Clubs, we believe that the closing really is the opening of the door for the right business. We look forward to reporting on that good news when it arrives.
And it will.