New Orleans Eighteen years ago, ACORN warned Walmart that opening stores in Chicago was not just a mistake, but wrong. We fought for a higher living wage for retail workers with mixed results. I was there with our members one day when we picketed the location. We were especially opposed to the company’s plans then to open a store in the Englewood area, the heart of our Chicago base. This was a period when we were fighting the company everywhere from Chicago to Florida, along the I-4 corridor, and even in India, where we continue to push back against their expansion through ACORN’s India FDI Watch Campaign, curtailing their foreign direct investment in retail. They didn’t listen and plowed ahead, but now they are finally admitting they are paying for their mistakes in cold, hard cash with the announcement that they are closing four stores immediately in Chicago.
Turns out they have been losing their shirt to the tune of tens of millions of dollars each year. Furthermore, this has been going on for years. The company claims that they are hoping this maneuver saves the other stores, including it seems the property in Englewood, where though controversial, they are anchored in something of a food desert. This isn’t just a Chicago story for the Arkansas-based giant. They have closed stores in other cities as well, including one recently in Washington, where Justice Clarence Thomas might have enjoyed hanging out in their parking lot with the other campers providing free security for the big boxes. Despite a lot of talk and lobbying over the years, much of which is past history, Walmart has never opened stores in New York City. For almost twenty years, an ordinance in the city of Los Angeles that requires any company wanting to open a superstore sized operation to produce an economic impact statement has blocked them there. The company seems to be finally conceding that its strategy of planting stores as beachheads in big cities in order to expand by attracting new customers just isn’t working.
At least that’s true where there has been concerted opposition. Walmart’s are everywhere in the big sunbelt cities in Texas and Arizona, for example. They still are making money hand over fist in many rural areas where they have driven out the competition and in suburbs where they are often ubiquitous. They may not be in the city of Los Angeles, but the activist research organization LAANE, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, says they had as many as 212 stores ten years ago in Los Angeles County. Furthermore, they may not be in New York City, but in the state capital of Albany they boast the largest store in the chain, which even has two levels. If they are crying about their big city strategy, they are still doing so all the way to the bank.
Even the concessions we negotiated in India didn’t completely stop them, though it slowed them down. Walmart and other multi-brand retail outlets are barred from city centers, allowed only in cities with more than one-million population, and mandated to source a huge percentage of goods from India, all of which made the country less interesting to them.
Nonetheless, in the way companies like Walmart are all about their brand, even with some wage increases and different spins on emissions, climate, and more, they still can’t escape their reputation as anti-worker, anti-union, and too deeply conservative on too many measures for many big city consumers. You gotta learn, and they still haven’t.