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Oriental WalMart Closing: Renee Smith Interview
Town-n-Country Manager Calls Move "Pitiful"
January 16, 2016

ord traveled fast Friday that Walmart was closing its Walmart Express store just outside of Oriental. Very quickly, the conversation turned to, can Oriental get a full-service grocery – or something close to it – back?

Prior to the Walmart Express opening 20 months ago, in May 2014, Oriental had an independent grocer, the Town-n-Country which had been in business for 4 decades. A year and a half in to what turns out to have been a WalMart experiment, the Town-n-Country had lost much of its clientele and shut down in October.

TownDock.net spoke Friday with Renee Smith, who managed the Town-n-Country owned by her mother, Ruth Ireland. By noontime Friday, she said, she’d had four inquiries about the now shuttered Town n Country.

Smith said her mother, would not want to reopen the store. “She’s not doing that.”

As for Renee herself she says that in the past 2-1/2 months she’s missed the business she grew up in. She’s open to outside investors buying in and her “helping them” but she emphasizes, “I’m not going to retail for a chain.”

Inside the former Town & Country that Renee Smith managed (photo from September 2014) before the store went out of business.

Smith says she was not overly surprised by Walmart’s decision to close all of its Walmart Express stores, including the one that set up about a football field away from her family’s Town-n-Country. Last year she says, she read a Wall Street Journal article that suggested the CEO of Walmart was not a fan of the small -box store approach and didn’t want to proceed with them because they were not good for the Walmart mainstay, the Superecenters.

For Renee Smith, the big takeaway from that article was that Walmart would, “do away” with the WalMart express stores in 2016.

Her Town-n-Country had lost customer base since the WalMart Express grand opening in May 2014 (an event that had County and Town officials in attendance and a high school band playing). The T-n-C tried to hang on but Smith said she and her mother had no way of knowing exactly when in 2016 Walmart’s CEO would pull the plug on the Express stores, a move which could give T-n-C a shot at regaining customers.

And so they shut down their store of 40+ years in October. Less than 3 months later came news of the Express’s departure.

Asked for comment Friday, Renee Smith did not hold back, “We didn’t turn our back on the people of Oriental,” she said, of her family keeping the store going in the face of the WalMart competition. “We tried to fight it and lost a lot of money.”

In contrast, she said, “Walmart’s turned its back on y’all.”

“It’s really pitiful.” Smith said. “Oriental now has two empty buildings” on the Highway 55 entrance to town.

Smith added that some in Oriental were lately “so worried about the graffiti” on the T-n-C (blaming Walmart for the independent market’s closing.) Smith suggests the Friday announcement should change the focus.

(The front of the T-n-C was painted with graffiti on Halloween, a few nights after it closed and its continued presence has prompted a proposed graffiti ordinance from the Town. Her mother, Smith says, plans to have the graffiti painted over by the end of the month.)

“Now there are bigger fish to fry,” Smith said of Oriental’s future with two abandoned buildings.

Some of Smith’s former employees had gotten jobs at the WalMart Express, she said, at 25 hours per week. Now they’ll be looking for jobs again.

In closing, Smith expressed disdain for Oriental’s Town Board of 2013 which didn’t demand Walmart annex in to Town but nonetheless gave it access to the Town’s water system. Three decades earlier her mother was told she had to annex in – and pay town property taxes – in order to get the same water access. That unusual treatment for Walmart in 2013 saved the giant retailer the cost of laying pipe to the County water system at Straight Road.

Smith recalled a commissioner in 2013 saying the Town Board was doing that “‘for the poor people.’”

“Well,” Renee Smith said Friday, as Oriental faced the prospect of not one but two abandoned grocery stores, “it looks like Walmart bailed on the poor people.”

Posted Saturday January 16, 2016 by Melinda Penkava

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