Friday Rant: Dear Walmart, You are a Super Corporation, Not an Urban “Mom and Pop” Store

It's been an interesting week in retail politics here in the small-ish neighborhood of Lakeview, just north of downtown Chicago (also home to me, Jason and Lisa, and the Spend Matters office). On Monday, Jason got an e-mail from the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce tolling the following: "The news of big box Walmart moving into one of Chicago's most densely populated northside small business districts is not sitting well with local residents and business organizations. A letter of intent to lease the 2840 N. Broadway 30,000 square foot space in the heart of Lakeview East is uniting residents and business organizations locally and across the City."

Now, I can't argue the savings at Walmart. You do get a better deal on the day-to-day groceries. But don't get me started on the quality of the clothes and house-wares -- not exactly China's finest. Electronics, too -- another poor total cost personal spending decision in their aisles. Yet if you're looking for completely mainstream books, DVDs, or Blu-Rays, I must admit: Walmart's your store. And their recent CSR/ localized sourcing expansion is admirable (though may be rife with ulterior motives). To be frank, though: I don't want a Walmart in my hood. And several other residents in the area agree with me.

Chicagoist made the announcement last Thursday: "Wal-Mart: it isn't just for Austin and Chatham anymore." (Austin and Chatham are neighborhoods in the South and West sides of the city, with room for actual parking lots, and known for being in the middle of Chicago's food deserts). On the same day, Chicago Real Estate Daily (through Crain's Chicago) reported "The Bentonville, Ark.-based company is negotiating for locations throughout the city and may be poised to announce several sites in coming months, a spokesman says. The retailer in October confirmed its plans to make Chicago a key launching ground as the chain looks to expand with smaller stores in urban settings [emphasis added]. Furthermore, NBC Chicago reports that "people will prefer to shop in their immediate vicinity, rather than spending the time and money commuting to stores farther away" and one reporter goes so far to say that "I think this store will compete most directly with Aldi, with Trader Joes and basically with Walgreens and CVS and drug stores."

This threw me for a loop. Walgreens and CVS I can see: all that kind of stuff is indeed cheaper at Walmart. But my beloved Trader Joe's?! No competition, in my mind. This raises the question, though, of whether or not Walmart can rebrand themselves as a small-scale local shop in upper-class urban settings. In my opinion, they really just can't: Walmart is the overtaker of Mom and Pop shops everywhere, and they've spent years and years branding themselves as such -- without apologies. Put one in the middle of a neighborhood that's already full of the basic (and really, extravagant, in the form of "European Markets" and upscale beauty salons, trendy restaurants, etc.) life needs, and Walmart will fall last on my list for a place to go. Do we go to Walmart for brand loyalty, or because of their exceptional quality products and service? No. We go because it's cheap. Plus, parking around here is already a nightmare. And I don't even want to think about the giant delivery trucks navigating the tiny, two lane roads lined with cars.

Apparently others feel the same, as our alderman's office was "flooded with calls" after the announcement, and residents rallied against the development this past Monday. Apparently their rally was successful: "Wal-Mart has not executed a lease or a letter of intent with the developer to locate a store on the property known as Broadway at Surf," Maggie Sans, their vice-president of public affairs and government relations, says in the statement, according to this article. Though Ms. Sans adds in her statement, "The company is evaluating a number of potential opportunities across the city of Chicago, and will continue to work with elected officials, business groups, community associations and key stakeholders to ensure that sites and formats are compatible with the communities we seek to serve."

I have to say that I'm with The Chicagoist and their belief that "Wal-Mart will open their stores in Chicago where they find the least resistance ... Or could this have been a trial balloon floated to gauge resistance to having a Wal-Mart in specific neighborhoods?" Looks like the people have spoken, and they want to keep their spending exactly where it already is: at local stores and specialized formats (e.g., Walgreens, Trader Joes, etc.).

Sheena Moore

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