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Walling Off Walmart

Walmart store sign.
photo by Mike Mozart

There are six Walmart “supercenters” in the three northeast Florida counties of Volusia, Flagler and St. John’s. In one hour you can easily drive past five of them strung along or between Interstate 95 and the parallel U.S. Highway 1.

Those three counties have a combined population of not quite 1 million. New York City has 8.4 million residents, but not a single Walmart outlet. You can’t shop at Walmart within the corporate limits of Boston, either. Or in San Francisco, or Seattle.

Lest you think this reflects a pattern of mutual rejection between the huge discount retailer and affluent urban centers on the coasts, consider this: Impoverished Detroit does not have a Walmart either, although it is ringed by supercenters in its suburbs. Other cities whose demographics line up almost perfectly with Walmart’s target market and entry-level workforce without a Walmart retail presence include Minneapolis; Oakland, California; and Newark, New Jersey.

More’s the pity, because Walmart has been a bright light in a pandemic season of dim economic news. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company this week reported comparable sales were up 10% over last year in the quarter that ended May 1. While more than 30 million Americans were filing unemployment claims in the period, Walmart hired more than 235,000 new hourly employees. It boosted wages for warehouse and fulfillment center workers and paid cash bonuses to store staff. Even as other brick-and-mortar retailers, including onetime giant J.C. Penney, tumble into bankruptcy, Walmart’s stock price hovers near all-time highs. Its workers can buy the stock via paycheck deductions with a 15% company match (up to an annual limit of $1,800).

Unions and their political allies have worked hard to keep Walmart out of New York and other cities. Often local retailers that don’t want the competition have joined these efforts. Some of those resistant businesses are genuine mom-and-pops, but regional grocery chains with union labor do not relish a Walmart invasion of their cozy retail nooks either.

This urban rejection of Walmart does not burden affluent residents. They can afford to get whatever they need from other outlets – or they have cars and second homes outside the cities, so they can take advantage of any big-box retailer they choose. Nor do they want or need the jobs that Walmart offers.

The communities that bear the cost of Walmart’s absence are the neighborhoods where a job paying Walmart wages (well above the federal minimum, and often better than the local minimum) with flexible hours for part-time work and a career path for full-time advancement represents a real opportunity to get ahead. To access a Walmart job, residents of these communities often must endure arduous trips on public transportation. That’s if they can reach such jobs at all.

These are also the communities that face inflated prices and limited choices at their undersized local grocers. Such neighbors are often called “food deserts,” with good reason. Walmart is the nation’s biggest grocer by far. A Walmart job offers an employee discount – 10% off groceries, for example – which would provide a double benefit to an employee with few other options for shopping and earning wages right now. Many who currently are trying to get by on some combination of government benefits and meager savings would also appreciate such a position.

Residents of cities that have kept Walmart out are entitled to make their own choices about how to run their communities. But I wonder who is really making the choices, and whose interests those choices are serving. To some extent, the rejection of Walmart in these cities reflects a culture that emphasizes what is in a union contract more than what is in a 401(k) plan, which Walmart offers with a company match of up to 6% of compensation.

Walmart tried to enter New York City early in the last decade. After running into opposition from then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, among many others, the company decided it could get along just as well without the hassles of Big Apple commerce. Amazon, another retailer providing a welcome lifeline while doing relatively well in the current pandemic, reached the same conclusion more recently. It pulled out of plans to put a major “second headquarters” complex in the borough of Queens in the wake of local pushback. Walmart did open a fulfillment center for its online affiliate Jet.com in the Bronx in 2018, but the company announced this week that it would shutter Jet in favor of its own online retail offerings.

I feel bad for all the people whose interest in shopping or working at Walmart are being given short shrift in their home cities. All I can say to them is that there is plenty of room for them in northeast Florida, and a lot of other places in America. They should feel free to make themselves at home.

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