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The case against Wal-Mart

This isn't an economic boon facing Atascadero

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Once upon a time, conventional wisdom had it that the Earth was flat. But the experience of explorers and the development of science proved this belief to be unfounded.

Today, there is no excuse for the conventional wisdom espoused by some like John Crippen ("Wal-Mart isn't a threat," March 20), about the world of Wal-Mart. Unless, as a proponent of the Wal-Mart Supercenter, it is more convenient not to be confused by the facts and remain in the dark ages, in order to make the sales pitch.

It is evident from the body of research available, some listed below, and the experience of communities and businesses across the country, that the "conventional wisdom" that Wal-Mart passes off for the rest of us to believe is purely relentless self-promotion. (See the letter by Tony Ferrara, mayor of Arroyo Grande, on its experiences with Wal-Mart, in the March 22 Tribune.)

Because of its size, power, and impact on the retail--and indeed the entire economy--Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the last decade. Under the lens of economists, environmentalists, academia, independent and small business associations, and unions, to name a few, Wal-Mart's business practices, ethics, and global and local economic and community impacts have been explored and made available for those interested.

Evidence and experience reveal: A Supercenter is not just a big-box store! A Supercenter is not a customer magnet for other stores in town! And a Supercenter is not a revenue-generator nor job creator! In fact, there is no evidence that would support Crippen's rosy assertions that a Wal-Mart Supercenter will save Atascadero. The analogy and comparison to Paso Robles reveals either an inability to comprehend or a conscious effort to blur the difference between a Wal-Mart department store and a Supercenter. Paso developed as a result of its $1.8 billion wine and culinary tourism, not as a result of a Wal-Mart store.

The inclusion of a full grocery component under the same roof as a retail discount store has already been banned in the county and about 30 cities in California. These cities, without superstores, have been able to develop successful economic diversity.

Consumer trips to grocery stores are far greater in frequency than those for general big-box or specialty retail, and even membership clubs like Costco. (Traffic estimates derived from the Institute for Transportation Engineers' trip generation manual, seventh edition, indicate a 150,000-square-foot superstore would see almost 9,000 weekday trips vs. 6,000 for a similar-sized Costco). Superstores are able to sell discounted food (non-taxable), knowing that the store will profit from high-margin general merchandising and services purchased by the same customers on a single trip. Wal-Mart also has 1,000 NTBs--not-to-beat items. Weekly, store managers or designees canvas competitor prices on these items and lower their price, even if it means taking a loss. Wal-Mart can only do this because of its size and clout in the marketplace. Then, when competitors are forced out of business, Wal-Mart prices rise. (Big-Box Swindle, The True Costs of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses, by Stacy Mitchell, 2006).

Superstores eliminate the "need" to patronize multiple businesses. This shifting of consumer shopping patterns to a single superstore and subsequent destruction of small local and chain competitors that cannot compete in a monopolized market has significant monetary and social costs: vacancy, the loss of sales tax revenues, and the loss of quality jobs. Those most affected will be our friends, family, and neighbors. Community consciousness and civic responsibility must trump "cash-box zoning" promises.

The predatory expansion of Walton's 5 & 10 to the colossal supercenter, according to the Oct. 3, 2007, Wall Street Journal, "accelerated the drive to manufacture products in Asia, drove countless small shops out of business, and sped the decline of Main Street." Wal-Mart, a globalized stateless corporation that can shift production around at will, has contributed enormously to American manufacturing job losses and traded safety for profits. Unsafe imports arrive on our tables, in our toy boxes, and in dog bowls because of companies like Wal-Mart who favor cheap and fast imports over safe ones.

What happens when Wal-Mart comes to town? Many workers who lose their jobs in the community take jobs at Wal-Mart at lower pay and reduced benefits, meaning less money to spend around town at other stores, etc. Cities face declining property values and blight from closed shopping strips, increased infrastructure and police costs, and a greater strain on emergency services. Public health care expenditures rise as the county must make up for Wal-Mart's lack of an affordable health plan. Traffic and pollution may rise, and the essential character of a community that was built over decades can be lost. ("Wal-Mart and Beyond," a joint publication of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and Partnership of Working Families, January 2007).

The truth behind the smiley face and slogan, "Save money, live better," is inconvenient and ugly.

The Atascadero Shield Initiative is designed to ban superstores. It also provides minimal community development land-use standards to guide economic growth. We believe this will not only attract more business, as they will know that superstores are banned, but enhance the city efforts to advertise and expand on Atascadero's unique character and diversity of sustainable economic development.

A Wal-Mart Supercenter will mean economic displacement for our local businesses, not economic development. Sign the shield. Support smart growth and save the Central Coast. For more info, go to www.opposewalmart.com, www.sprawl-busters.com, or www.hometown-advantage.org.


Tom Comar is spokesperson for Oppose Wal-Mart and the Atascadero Shield Initiative

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