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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A leaner, yuppier Walmart arrives downtown

Posted By on 09.21.11 at 03:17 PM

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  • Image by mjb84 via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

From a few blocks away, they looked like protestors. I saw the tall signs and expected the normal jeering crowds that have trailed Walmart and its myriad of labor abuse allegations everywhere the behemoth chain goes.

But as I got closer, I noticed the new, sparse logo. These were Walmart workers. A half-dozen young employees decked in bright neon green, some with looming store flags hitched to backpacks, were passing out apples to pedestrians. On the opening morning of Walmart's first downtown Chicago site, this cadre was circling the store manager, who biked around the cooler with orange juice and fruit cups.

The opening marks a significant coup for the giant retailer, which has moved steadily inward from the suburbs to central cities, often through pitched battles with labor groups. In so doing, Walmart has relied on tactics that resemble political campaigns. In New York City the company hired Mayor Bloomberg's former campaign manager. Here the chain picked up two veteran politicos, the brother of Cook County sheriff Tom Dart and a former Mayor Daley aide, as hired guns to push its expansion in the city.

With its first two Chicago stores, the company cast itself as a savior of food deserts in poorer regions of the city. For this West Loop store—one of its smaller "Neighborhood Markets" that primarily sells groceries—Walmart is aiming for a downtown clientele.

Upon entrance, you walk right into a manageable produce section, a surprising contrast with the store’s trademark tremendous sprawl. This morning, shoppers trickled in, though the aisles were largely full of Walmart employees—greeters, cashiers, and men with suits looking busy and pleased. A manager led me through the produce aisle. He proudly pointed out "the biggest selection of hummus I've seen at a Walmart."

Lisa Johnson, the owner of Last Minute Gourmet, a west-side company, was standing over her sandwiches displayed for sale. She acknowledged the retailer's shaky history on labor issues, namely with women. But these were "rumors" from "five years ago," which, she felt, were proven untrue during her time working with the company. "Walmart is helping the Chicago economy," she said.

According to the company, its five-year "investment plan" will generate 10,000 jobs in the city. Over 3,500 job seekers allegedly applied for the 100 spots at the new location. But this is par for the course everywhere, as the labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told the Reader last year:

Walmart's always prided itself that 25,000 people apply for 400 jobs when a Supercenter opens up. But this has been the case in America in general for the last 30 years. It's not attributable to the fine job Walmart does. Whenever you have an employer of any size in any kind of urban area you'll get 25,000 applicants. Walmart often uses that as a kind of argument that "Well, we're doing great."

And then there is the resounding impact the store can have on surrounding businesses. One economic study found that when a Walmart moves in, nearly 50 percent of the neighboring discount stores quickly become unprofitable.

After shopping at the new site, three young women left for their downtown jobs, raving about the lunchtime deals they now had. “Why go to CVS or Walgreens?” one asked.

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