Wal-Mart's camping paradise


`Boondocking': RVers roll out the Astroturf in the parking lot - and store employees are ready with the red carpet. It's big business.

March 24, 2001|By Julie Cart | Julie Cart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MARANA, Ariz. - Stars flicker high above the Sonoran Desert on a winter night. The tangy whiff of a mesquite campfire hangs in the frigid air. In the distance, a lone coyote calls and from the foothills comes an answering yip.

Huddled together, Clif and Betty Santa prepare for another night camping out. After cleaning the microwave, turning off the TV and shifting the clothes from the washer to the dryer, Betty steps out of the 39-foot Newmar Diesel RV and into an eerie, fluorescent light. Before her is a vast grid of white-painted stripes stretching into the void. Behold their campground: the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Theirs was not the only recreational vehicle moored under the moonlight, amid the acres of asphalt, at the Super Center north of Tucson. Massive motor homes and pickups with pudgy cab-over campers were bivouacked all along the edge of the blacktop. All of them camping. At the Wal-Mart.

They arrive uninvited, undaunted by local ordinances that prohibit overnight parking and evidently unfazed by the lack of amenities. But with recreational vehicle enthusiasts in the United States now numbering more than 30 million - and with national park campgrounds ever more crowded - the notion of bedding down in the parking lot of a busy 24-hour store is increasingly attractive.

It's called "boondocking," and it's big business. A 1999 survey found that one-third of campers had spent at least one night in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The well-heeled RVers stream into the stores for one-stop shopping: groceries, photo processing, eye exams, tires and, increasingly, RV-specific merchandise. Wal-Mart has even produced a road atlas that notes the locations of its stores in all 50 states and Canada, complete with information about local camping ordinances.

The RVers represent such a windfall that greeters at some stores make early morning treks to the parking lot to knock on doors and let sleepy customers know that the coffee's on inside at the Wal-Mart Cafe.

In Alaska, where RVs flock in the summer, the competition for business has grown fierce. One Wal-Mart in Anchorage welcomes campers with a note placed under the vehicles' windshield wipers. The manager of the Kmart across the street noticed the massing of motor homes and ordered a banner - "We welcome RVers" - to lure some over to his side.

But some residents of communities most familiar with the urban camping phenomenon have had enough. They object to the sight of hulking recreational vehicles decamped in town, complete with unfurled awnings and lawn chairs arranged around a swatch of Astroturf. And some city officials across the country have started to crack down, invoking seldom-used bans on overnight camping within city limits.

"People here don't like it because they say it looks trashy," says a Wal-Mart employee at the Green Valley, Ariz., store who gives her name only as Megan.

The craze is well-known at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., where the official policy is that the urban campers are welcome to park and shop, however long it takes.

"We view them as customers who take their time deciding what they want to buy," spokesman Tom Williams says.

Those slow shoppers - people like the Gefke family - have been good to Wal-Mart. The Gefkes sold their home and are traveling around the country in an RV, chronicling the journey on their Web site. Among the entries is a Wal-Mart review, where the Gefkes rate the stores they have camped at and note such details as RV access, noise levels and how much they spent: $97.50 at the Crestview, Fla., store; $120 in Beavercreek, Ohio.

Not wanting to miss out on a merchandising windfall, Wal-Marts are stocking more RV-related items and placing them closer to the front of the stores. Wayne Boone, assistant manager of the Wal-Mart in Marana, acknowledges that the tactic has produced steady sales.

"They're good customers," he says of the campers snoozing in his vast parking lot.

"Some nights, I might escort them out to their RVs, store security guard Fred Hovater says, "if they are parked way out and they've got their hands full."

Not many RVers say that the parking lots are their first choice for an overnight stay. They end up there when national park campgrounds are full or if they are tired and need to get off the road in a town where no campground exists. Church and hospital parking lots are other options.

Herb Neilson and his mother, Jaye, are avid RVers who say that, for weary travelers, Wal-Mart lots offer more safety than simply pulling off by the side of the road.

"Rest areas are a no-no," Jaye Neilson says. "They're dangerous. I wouldn't hesitate to stay at a Wal-Mart. RV people are good people. We never leave so much as a scrap of paper behind."

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