(Aug. 31) Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is sourcing more local products, thus reducing its transportation costs and enabling each store to adapt to its customer’s needs.

Although critics of the Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart chain sometimes argue that it hurts local businesses, Ron McCormick, Wal-Mart vice president and divisional merchandise manager for produce and floral, said the company has long been striving to adapt its stores to its communities.

Within the past few years, the company started referring to the strategy as its Store of the Community program. It’s a company-wide merchandising plan that tailors inventories to suit each store’s demographics and customer preferences.

“It’s all about getting the right product at the right time in the right store,” McCormick said.

One partner that sells local produce to Wal-Mart is New York Apple Sales Inc., Castleton, N.Y.

Kaari Stannard, president of New York Apple Sales, said her company represents grower-shippers in North Carolina, Virginia, Maine, New York and Pennsylvania.

And, because many New Yorkers spend winters in Florida, Stannard said she makes sure Wal-Mart stores there have mcintosh and empire varieties, which are popular in New York.

The number of local produce stock-keeping units in a store varies according to season and availability, McCormick said.

“We carry a lot (of apples) from Rice (Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa.) orchards in our Pennsylvania stores, but there are a few stores where there are (local growers’) packing sheds right down the road,” McCormick said. “We would arrange for that farmer to be a vendor.”

Frey Produce, Mount Vernon, Ill., is another Wal-Mart supplier. It started its relationship with Wal-Mart about 13 years ago as a small, local grower selling directly to stores, said Sarah Frey-Talley, president.

Now Frey supplies produce to Wal-Mart stores nationwide and facilitates relationships between growers and Wal-Mart, Frey-Talley said. Frey’s main products include watermelons, cantaloupe and pumpkins.

The local produce is generally sourced from within 30 minutes of Wal-Mart’s distribution center, and it typically goes to a store within the state or an adjoining state, Frey-Talley said.

Bushwick Commission Co. Inc., Farmingdale, N.Y., is another broker that has worked with Wal-Mart to source potatoes from small, local growers on the East Coast, McCormick said. Local produce may be available for short periods, though, because small growers are less likely to have controlled atmosphere storage.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” McCormick said. “They (local potato grower-shippers) may have bulk, 5-, 10-, 50-pound bags for a short time. Lots of local items are like that.”

McCormick said stores often see increases in sales when local produce is featured, but he thinks it’s often because people simply want to buy produce when it’s in season. He declined to release any sales information for produce items..

Wal-Mart stores use display-ready corrugated boxes for displaying local produce. That helps set the local produce apart from other produce, most of which is displayed in black plastic returnable containers, McCormick said.