NORTH SMITHFIELD — They began lining up a half-hour before the doors opened, some hoping to score some swag and grand-opening freebies, while others were looking to get an early start on their shopping.
Even more were there because they were just curious to see what it looked like.
In each case, Wal-Mart Supercenter #2225 didn't disappoint.
About 60 early birds came out Wednesday morning as Wal-Mart celebrated the opening of its new North Smithfield store at Dowling Village with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and free coffee just before the store opened its doors to customers at 7:30.
Cutting the ceremonial blue ribbon were store manager Dan Busha, North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette D. Hamilton and John C. Gregory, president/CEO of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.
Rev. Edward St-Godard, pastor of Holy Family Church in Woonsocket, gave the blessing, and local entertainer Noel Pincince sang the national anthem.
The new store opened one day after the retail giant's Woonsocket store on Diamond Hill Road officially closed Tuesday after 17 years at that location.
For nearly all of the Woonsocket residents interviewed at the new 24-hour 200,000-square-foot supercenter in North Smithfield, Wednesday's grand opening couldn't have come any sooner.
And there was little sadness to be found over the closing of the old Woonsocket store.
For Woonsocket residents living in Fairmount, Park Avenue and other neighborhoods on the western side of the city, a trip to Wal-Mart no longer means having to cross town to busy Diamond Hill Road.
“Honestly? I couldn't wait for this new store to open,” says Salina Gordon, who was making her way down the frozen food aisle. “I shop at Wal-Mart all the time and this new store is huge and very convenient to get to.”
Gordon says she was impressed with the store's full-service supermarket, which includes a meat section, deli, produce, bakery and frozen foods — all things the old store didn't have.
“The food prices are great and certainly a lot less expensive than Stop & Shop,” she said. “This is where I plan to do my grocery shopping from now on.”
“You can get lost in here!” observed Rina Maculan of Bellingham. “It's gorgeous. I've only been to one Wal-Mart supercenter and that was in Connecticut. I figured I would come over here today to see this one and, boy, is it nice.”
For Brenda Janson, who lives in the Fairmount section of Woonsocket, the new state-of-the-art Wal-Mart at Dowling Village will save her money on gas.
“This is a lot closer for me and it's so much better than the old store in Woonsocket,” she said. “It's bigger, brighter and has so much more.”
The retailer has spent the last month transforming the empty building into a Wal-Mart superstore complete with a full-line of groceries and a wide assortment of merchandise and services.
The new Wal-Mart store employs approximately 300 associates, including 85 new jobs created as a result of the relocation from Woonsocket. About 30 of the store's associates have worked for Wal-Mart for more than 10 years, including several associates who have worked at the Woonsocket store since its original opening in 1994.
Those associates — Karen Aldrich, Albert Baro, Margaret Baro, Jocelyn Ciffo, Christione Dubois, Lynne Faria, Cindy Gamache, Normand Lambert, Diane Lewis, Mary Betty Nadeau, Cheryl Pelletier, William Robertson and Alma Saravara - were recognized at Wednesday's ceremony.
In recent months, Wal-Mart has taken major steps to refresh its stores, merchandising and customer experience. The improvements have all come together in the North Smithfield location.
“We're really proud to be a member of this community and we're seeing a lot of excitement from our customers,” said store manager Busha, who has been employed by Wal-Mart for the past six years. “We've had people driving up here all week not knowing when the store was actually going to open.”
Busha, who was store manager for the Wal-Mart in Hooksett, N.H. before taking the helm at the new North Smithfield store, said the new store's approximately 300 associates are also excited, including those associates who worked at the Diamond Hill Road store.
“I'm sure closing the Diamond Hill store was bittersweet for a lot of people, but we're only four or five miles away from the old store; we're located on a major thoroughfare that is fast and convenient; and there are two bus lines providing transportation services to and from the store,” he said. “But more importantly, people are going to have a completely different shopping experience here. It's a much more shopper-friendly environment and I think that once people see the store any animosity over the closing of the Woonsocket location will go away.”
The new Wal-Mart features wide aisles, enhanced service and a layout designed to make the shopping experience more convenient for customers.
Wal-Mart aligned the departments that customers shop most frequently.
“The layout of the store is easy to navigate, which will save our customers time as they shop for everyday necessities,” Busha said. “By grouping the products that our customers most often purchase, including health and beauty and pet supplies, we are making one-stop shopping even easier.”
Busha says the bright interior color palette creates an inviting shopping experience and helps define the store's merchandise areas. Lower shelving creates an improved sightline and directional signage on every aisle helps customers find what they are looking for quickly. Wal-Mart also combined the customer service desk, Site-to-Store pick-up location and photo lab in one area near the entrance. Busha says customers now have easy access to these services, as well as associates on hand to help meet their needs.
Woonsocket resident Vieng Phiu liked what he saw at the new store.
“I live off Park Avenue, so this is a lot more convenient for me,” he said. “It's right off of Route 146 and there's not nearly as much congestion as Diamond Hill Road. That's a major plus for me.”
North Smithfield resident Ronald Robillard lives five minutes away from the store.
“Wal-Mart is where I buy all my prescriptions, so this is helpful to me, and also for the town because it helps the tax base,” he said.
Dowling Village, a 133-acre, $85 million mixed-use development, is located on Route 146A on the Woonsocket city line. Phase one of Dowling Village was completed with the opening of an 18,000-square-foot CVS pharmacy in 2008. The North Smithfield Planning Board approved the master plan for the remaining three phases of the massive shopping complex in November of 2009. Town officials had always speculated that a Super Wal-Mart and Lowe's Home Improvement store would occupy the two largest buildings on the Dowling Village property.
“The addition of the state-of-the-art Wal-Mart, as part of the continued expansion of the Dowling Village location, will have a positive impact on our local community, with the creation and retention of jobs, as well as offering more products and services,” said Hamilton, North Smithfield's town administrator. “We look forward to a long community partnership with Wal-Mart and wish them great success.”