(Oct. 7) BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Big, apparently, is not quite big enough for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, the largest in the world, said Oct. 1, that it plans to add about 8% more retail space — about 48 million square feet — in the next fiscal year, at a time when other chains have been re-evaluating — even cutting back — their own store rosters.

The plan focuses on Wal-Mart’s supercenter format, which has put heavy pressure on tradi-tional store formats, said Ed Odron, president of Produce Marketing Consultants, a Stockton, Calif.-based retail consulting firm.

It also likely would be a boon to Wal-Mart’s produce business, Odron added.

“I think that what they’re trying to do is put all the facilities in a regular supermarket and concentrating on their perishables, and it doesn’t surprise me that they’re trying to increase those things and add variety,” Odron said. “When those types of operators were trying to put in food, they did it kind of bare bones. But now, with all the nuances they have, with rotisserie chicken, pizzas and HMR (home-meal replacement) stuff, they’d need to expand space in those particular areas.”

That would include produce departments, Odron said.

“I’d say most of that space would be in perishables to make it a full supermarket offering, to make it the same as a Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons,” Odron said.

James Graham, a produce buyer for Wal-Mart, however, indicated that Odron’s scenario was at least possible.

“It could have some impact (on produce), but that’s basically in line with our overall growth strategy,” Graham said. “Produce will expand with everything else.”

That means, he added, that the chain likely could expand its variety of conventional, as well as exotic, produce items.

“We’re always reviewing our lines to find the best items and best service for our customers,” Graham said.

Wal-Mart said that it plans to open about 45 to 55 new discount stores and more than 200 new supercenters — in the fiscal year starting Feb. 1, with as many as 90% of the new stores open in time for the Christmas shopping season in 2003.

Renovation or moves of existing stores would amount to about 140 of the new supercenters, with the rest new building projects, the company said.

Wal-Mart also announced that it would open as many as 25 smaller Neighborhood Market stores and up to 45 Sam’s Club warehouse stores in the U.S., although two-thirds of the new Sam’s Club units will be relocations or expansions.

“I think, at some point, you’re expanding to the point where you have diminishing returns,” Odron said. “But I don’t know if Wal-Mart has reached that yet. I think they have a ways to go in their center-store offerings.”