By Mike Gast
Walmart has long been a haven for the over-the-road RVer. Stores were everywhere, complete with acres of unused parking, and most put out the welcome mat for those looking for a quick and easy overnight stay.
But that is changing fast, and for a lot of different reasons.
To fully understand what the future might hold for overnight boondocking at Walmart, you have to understand why the practice started, and what the world’s largest brick-and-mortar shopping behemoth has planned for its own future.
It all started with Sam
Walmart founder Sam Walton loved RVers. He opened the first true Walmart in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. As he added more stores, he tended to open them in smaller communities, where he could totally control most of the retail traffic.
His model for success also relied on a sophisticated logistics network that involved a lot of big trucks. That led to big unloading dock facilities that took a lot of space. Walton bought up all of the land he could around the stores, and the parking lots became massive. That was a good thing for RVers, who were welcome to spend the night along lot edges.
Sam Walton, who died in 1992, always considered RVers great customers, and encouraged his managers to allow overnight stays when they could and when local ordinances allowed. Walmart’s website even states, “Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers.” So, then, why the sharp decline in stores that allow overnight parking?
Times, they are a-changin’
Walmart’s corporate offices are quick to state that parking lot policies are left completely to the discretion of local store managers. They are free to allow the practice – or not – if it doesn’t run afoul of local ordinances.
For most of the first two decades after Sam’s death, that arrangement worked pretty well. The majority of store managers welcomed RVs. Most RVers were grateful, and careful to be good stewards of the privilege.
But in the past 10 years, there’s been a steady decline in the number of stores allowing RV parking, even though there are now 4,700 lots at Walmart Supercenters and smaller stores in the U.S. In 2010, just shy of 80% of U.S. Walmart stores allowed overnight RV stays. Today, it’s closer to 55%. Without Sam Walton’s encouragement, many managers are choosing to close their lots to RVs.
If you’ve stayed overnight at a Walmart lately, you’ve likely noticed one of the problems. The boom in the popularity of RVing means there are more RVs scattered around the lot. Some of those recent additions are new RVers who may be unfamiliar with what’s known as “Walmart etiquette.” That includes keeping slide-outs retracted, not cooking outdoors and not turning the lot into a typical campground experience. Other new Walmart boondockers are local folks who have lost their homes and have taken to living in their rigs full time, setting up wherever they can.
All of this has led to more abandoned trash, dumped tanks and an overall mess. So, it’s no wonder that many Walmart managers are saying, “enough.”
More communities are also passing ordinances barring overnight parking, mostly in an effort to discourage those living locally in their RVs. Some ordinances are also driven by local campground owners who would rather have the overnight RVer’s business.
But there are a few other factors to consider.
Walmart is going head-to-head with Amazon
Walmart wants to be the world’s largest retailer, period. So does Amazon. To have a chance to stay in the game, Walmart is quickly rethinking their entire business model to integrate the online and retail shopping experiences. Walmart e-commerce was up 69% in the 4th quarter of 2020, while the number of in-store transactions declined 11%. Many of those changes could doom the future of overnight RV parking.
Consider these developments:
- During the pandemic, Walmart offered the shoppers the option of placing orders online and picking up purchases at the store via a slew of orange or blue parking stalls. Those stalls took away chunks of the parking lot. It also forced shoppers to circle the lot, zigzagging through parked RVs as they waited for a pickup stall to open.
- Walmart experimented with in-store pickup of online orders using an inventive kiosk approach. Shoppers didn’t like it and it’s been abandoned. What shoppers said they really wanted were more outside pickup options. So, stores are now installing even more drive-through lanes for item pickup, again cutting into the space in the lot.
Walmart is redesigning its Supercenters
- Walmart announced last fall that it is completely redesigning 200 Supercenters across the country by the end of this year and plans to redo 1,000 more locations by the end of 2022. The “new” stores will push shoppers to use an integrated Walmart online app to find what they are looking for in the stores. Walmart officials say the program is modeled after the way airports use apps and signage to help travelers navigate through airports. They’ll also offer contactless payment options (Walmart Pay) and a lot of self-checkouts. Aimless browsing is dead. The goal is to get shoppers in and out of the stores (and parking lots) as quickly as possible. RVs parked along the lot edges won’t help that plan.
- The mega store chain is also looking into following Amazon into the automated store space, where shoppers’ membership credit cards will be automatically recognized when they enter the store. There won’t be any checkouts. You just wheel your new stuff right out the door, and auto scanners charge your card for your purchases.
- Communities are putting pressure on Walmarts to add green space to their lots, including more trees, grass, and curbed islands – all not good for RV traffic.
- Last fall, Walmart experimented by offering free drive-in movies in Supercenter parking lots. The effort shows they are interested in ways to better utilize the space. Other retailers, including fast food outlets, have also said they’d like to open outlets along the edges of Walmart lots.
What’s that got to do with RV parking?
All of the items above illustrate that the Walmart shopping experience and the physical designs of their stores are changing rapidly. You can imagine the pressures on store managers facing complete redesigns, construction of even more new lanes for item pickup, and the rapid deployment of technology store-wide to seamlessly blend Walmart’s online shopping with traditional retail. Managers have a lot going on.
So, dealing with the negative aspects of a growing crowd of overnight RVers likely isn’t high on their list of priorities. It’s much easier to just ban the practice, and that’s what’s been happening.
What you can do
It’s likely that the number of Walmarts allowing overnight RV parking will continue to dwindle as the number of new RVers and the “rolling homeless” continue to grow, along with the problems they cause.
Walmart corporate-level officials insist that they are staying out of the local issues and will leave the RV parking decision up to the local store manager. If that stays the case, it might be time to show managers who still allow the practice a little more love.
Know whether the store allows overnight stays before you arrive, and ask the manager if it’s still OK when you get there. Follow common sense etiquette. And clean up any messes, even if they aren’t yours.
And if you think you can just roll over to the nearest Cracker Barrel, know that they are facing many of the same issues. But then, there’s always the casinos.
We recently asked you what you would do if Walmart no longer allowed overnight RV parking. Click HERE to read some of your responses.