Thrifty Yale students searching for the best deals on storage bins, cleaning supplies and packages of bottled water may have a slightly more pleasant shopping experience next school year.

At the very least, anyway, the “always low prices” offered by Wal-Mart will be closer than they currently are.

New Haven will have its very own Wal-Mart when the store opens its doors in the summer of 2004, said Mia Masten, the Wal-Mart community affairs manager for the Eastern Region.

The national retail chain will not build a new structure but plans on renovating the old Kmart building on Foxon Boulevard, located off I-91 in the northern section of New Haven.

The new 154,000 square-foot Wal-Mart will be a standard store instead of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, so it will not include a grocery section. But it will contain a garden center, pharmacy and optical center, Masten said.

Wal-Mart acquired the property in April 2003 in a nationwide deal that included a combined bid by Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target to purchase a large portion of Kmart’s real estate after the company filed for bankruptcy.

Home Depot was not interested in the property because there is already a Lowe’s store in the vicinity, but there was a demand for a store like Wal-Mart, New Haven City Planner Karen Gilvarg said.

Masten said the deal was a “win-win” situation because it involves a renovation rather than a construction and the general customer base already exists in New Haven. She said the company routinely evaluates existing stores to make sure they are operating at peak efficiency, but not at such a rate that overcrowding and long lines become problematic, as has been the case at other greater New Haven area Wal-Mart stores.

“We are always looking for opportunities to go into new markets or expand into existing markets,” Masten said.

In this case, the market is an existing one. The closest Wal-Mart locations to New Haven presently are in Hamden, Derby and Branford.

Masten said that by moving into New Haven, Wal-Mart will be filling a void in customer demand for the kinds of products the store offers, such as health and beauty products, small appliances and apparel. But the store does not have a “prototype customer” she said.

“Everyone wants to save money,” Masten said.

But Douglas Rae, a professor in the School of Management who specializes in cities and economic planning, said despite the fact that Wal-Mart offers a number of low-wage jobs and competitive prices, it tends to devastate small retail in cities. He said while the store is not drastically different from Kmart, the placement of a Wal-Mart in New Haven is, on the whole, a bad idea.

“Small business is vital to the city,” Rae said, “and Wal-Mart is a toxin.”

At the moment, Wal-Mart is in the process of evaluating bids for contractors and subcontractors. Gilvarg said the store has already gotten the zoning approvals to proceed with the renovation.

Masten said the unionization policy of the contractor would not play a role in Wal-Mart’s decision to hire that contractor for the renovation. She added, however, that overall Wal-Mart takes a non-union, “open-door” approach with its employees.

“We don’t foresee any change in that,” Masten said of the company’s policy.

As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart employs 1.3 million people worldwide and accounted for $244.5 billion in sales in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2003.