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Don’t Mess With Walmart

A look at the past week

— The world’s largest retailer showed San Diego yesterday why it’s the world’s largest retailer. Walmart used a downtown press conference to offer us a carrot: Building 12 new stores in San Diego. Walmart presented the carrot after beating the San Diego City Council with a stick, in the form of a ballot initiative to repeal a big-box ordinance that strictly regulates Walmart Supercenters. Walmart has collected enough signatures to force a special election.

Their new stores, Walmart told us, would provide 1,100 new retailing jobs and 300 construction jobs. We were also told the stores would bring high-quality groceries to low-income food deserts that have been ignored by the major grocery chains.

As for the ballot measure… Why bother with an expensive election when City Council members could simply do the decent thing and repeal the ordinance themselves, allowing Walmart’s charitable plan move ahead?

“This plan is part of our plan to do right by our customers. So Walmart is ready to move forward. The question remains: Is the City Council ready too?” said Maggie Sans, a stocky Walmart spokeswoman with a voice as sharp as an axe blade.

Next week the City Council will consider a repeal of the Supercenter ordinance. Council President Tony Young supports the repeal, even though he voted for the ordinance last year, and he expects the rest of the council to follow suit.

Don’t mess with Walmart.

There are two things Walmart has in bulk and they are customers and controversy. Walmart haters see a corporation that takes no prisoners, brooks no labor conflict and sells as cheap as possible no matter who they have screw to do it. The victims in this scenario are poorly paid employees and small main-street businesses that are driven out of business.

Walmart Supercenters are especially controversial because they're so big (more than 100,000 square feet) and they sell groceries, putting them in competition with unionized grocery stores like Vons and Ralphs.

But the other side of the debate says Walmart is a champion of the working man because they sell him things he couldn’t otherwise afford. One Walmart supporter who stood at Maggie’s side at that press conference was San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. He thinks restricting Walmart locations in San Diego limits consumer choice and that’s un-American.

“I don’t want anyone telling me I can only shop at Vons or I can only shop at Albertsons. If I want to shop at Walmart or anywhere else I should have that opportunity,” said Sanders.

He was referring to the infamous ordinance Walmart wants to kill. Passed by the council last year, it requires Walmart to conduct an economic impact and traffic study before it can locate a Supercenter in San Diego. Sanders and other Walmart boosters say the ordinance is a connivance of politically connected “labor bosses” (Councilman Carl DeMaio actually used the expression) and it is, in effect, a ban on Supercenters.

The most interesting character in yesterday’s drama was Tony Young. Young is the President of the City Council and the only African American on the council. His district is poor and poorly served by grocery stores. I spoke with him in city hall just before the Walmart press conference. He told me District 4 has no Vons grocery stores and the only Ralphs grocery they have is on the border of another council district.

Young is a Democrat and he supported the Supercenter ordinance, which was upheld despite a Sanders veto. But Young said he’ll vote to repeal the measure because a special election would cost $3 million dollars a cash-strapped city can’t afford. He hears Walmart talk about bringing groceries to under-served neighborhoods but he’ll believe it when he sees it. For all the happy corporate PR we heard yesterday, Walmart has promised San Diego nothing. Still, Young says he’ll give them a chance to make their deeds match their words.

“The fact is, the consumers are getting the short end of the stick in my district,” said Young. “So if you’ve got somebody who’s going to come and provide these products for us to buy so we don’t have to drive 10 miles to buy anything, then I’m supportive of it.”

Young said he’ll invite Walmart to put their plan before the council for conceptual approval if they want to show San Diego they’re serious. And Walmart? They’re making a concerted effort to move further into big-city markets. They’re doing it in San Diego. They’re doing it in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

For more than a dozen years, I’ve walked to Vons to my shopping. I do it now even though the nearest store is a mile away. I like walking. I like cities. I like neighborhood food stores and I shudder to think of Walmart Supercenters resting their huge footprints in San Diego.

Walmart has developed a new store type called the Neighborhood Market. It’s a food store about the size of Trader Joe’s. Will Walmart’s “12 new stores” in San Diego be Supercenters or Neighborhood Markets? The company won’t say.

Walmart has made a gospel of discount retailing. They don’t sell you style. They don’t win you over with their good citizenship or their corporate culture. They just sell cheaper than anyone else. Maybe you don’t like that, but banning Walmart is a losing battle.

So let’s just make them follow the rules. Don’t let them force people to work overtime without pay. If they practice gender discrimination, sue them. If they dump toxic waste out the back door, as they have done in San Diego, prosecute them.

Yes you CAN mess with Walmart. You just can’t live in a world where they don’t exist.

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