Is Walmart evil?

Retail giant Walmart generates controversy wherever it goes. This is true within the United States—where expansion plans, for example, in Boston are being resisted—or abroad in countries like China, India, or South Africa. So when it was announced last year that Walmart was opening six new stores here in the District of Columbia, up from the four originally planned, the hullaballoo that followed tweaked my interest.

Rural and suburban America is saturated with Walmarts, so the Walmart strategy now is to grow in urban areas, often with smaller “Walmart Express” stores instead of the “big box” stores for which it is better known. The six stores in the District will be a mixture of these, with some stores being part of mixed-use commercial and residential developments.

The District of Columbia government welcomes the entry of Walmart into the city. Mayor Vincent Gray has spoken of approximately 1,800 jobs that will result from the new Walmart stores, about 600 construction jobs, and an estimated $15 million in new tax revenue. He says the new stores will help address the problem of food “deserts”, where communities are underserved with fresh food retail opportunities. Gray has particularly heralded his success in getting Walmart to open a store at Southeast D.C.’s Skyland Town Center, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood with high unemployment in Ward 7, which he represents on the city council.

In response to criticisms of its plans for the District, Walmart has agreed on a “community partnership initiative”, whereby it will, for example:

  • Try to use local small and minority-owned business enterprises and subcontractors for construction and for goods and services within the stores.
  • Create and fund a work force development program that provides educational job training for D.C. residents.
  • Fill most of the available positions with D.C. residents.
  • Offer accessible hiring centers, hold job fairs, and work with community organizations to provide pre-employment workshops.
  • Provide competitive market salaries compared to its competitors, including those that are unionized (famously, Walmart does not allow its U.S. employees to organize).
  • Not sell guns or ammunition in its D.C. stores.
  • Offer bike racks and bike-sharing stations.

Critics say this agreement is not legally binding, the community wasn’t consulted on its provisions, and that Walmart’s implementation is dependent on business conditions.

In the case of the Skyland location, there is an additional dimension to be addressed: A covenant from the 1990s between the city and Safeway, the grocery chain that operates a store at Skyland, in terms of which a competitor is prevented from operating and selling groceries there. The city and Safeway are presently negotiating a resolution to this issue.

When one visits the Skyland Safeway—lettering across the store proudly notes “Serving the District of Columbia since 1928”—it is patently clear why Safeway would not welcome Walmart to the neighbourhood. Its monopoly has made it complacent. It has not invested in this particular store; indeed, the facility is in dire need of updating. The District’s Safeways had fun monikers in the past: the “Spanish Safeway” in Adams Morgan (for its Hispanic clientele); the “Soviet Safeway” close to Dupont Circle (for the long lines at the tills); and the “Social Safeway” in Georgetown (a gregarious place to shop and a place to “be seen”). The Skyland Safeway could be called the “Sad Safeway”.

Critics of Walmart point to features of its business model: Its intolerance of unions in its workforce in the United States (although it allows employees, for example, in China and South Africa to organize); much-debated discriminatory practices toward female employees; low wages and minimal benefits for its staff; deliberate undercutting of competitors’ prices; and the displacement or elimination of existing local businesses that inevitably follows in its wake.

First Lady Michelle Obama picked up substantial flak last year when, as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity, she endorsed Walmart for making healthier fresh food choices available in communities previously denied such options. I’m totally with Mrs. Obama on this. Apart from the “Sad Safeway”, the Skyland area has “Murry’s Family of Fine Foods”, a grocer with a limited choice of fresh produce and bread, but lots of soda, chips and other snacks, and canned and frozen foods. And then there’s a CVS/pharmacy, some banks, lots of shoe shops, wig shops and beauty parlours, car repair shops, a petrol station, a couple of liquor stores, a boarded-up Laundromat, and, of course, the ubiquitous array of fast food chains. Bring on Walmart with its selection of fresh produce, a deli, and bakery!

Despite misgivings about Walmart, if I were a resident of Anacostia, I would hail its arrival in the area. Walmart will boost the neighbourhood and signal its rebirth. It will herald a new era of development, job opportunities, and consumer choices. Yes, many of the jobs on offer will be low paying and low in skill requirements. However, a job is better than no job. And if you are determined, an initial job there could be the first in a succession of increasingly demanding positions, within Walmart or without.

It’s easy to be critical of Walmart and its business model, but, if not Walmart, then who will come in and invest in neglected parts of the District? So, albeit with misgivings, I thank Walmart for planning to come to the District, and creating new options, choices, and possibilities for local residents and consumers. May other retailers follow in its footsteps to these neighbourhoods.

Update on August 6, 2012: A fascinating article in the Washington Post taught me about an innovative way to facilitate the purchasing of more expensive fresh produce from a farmer’s market in Ward 8, an economically depressed part of the District. And First Lady Michelle Obama continues urging Americans to eat more healthily, especially fresh foods. Her book, American Grown, on gardening at the White House, is generating praise, criticism, and certainly discussion.

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