Grand Illusion: Walmart’s Birthday “Gift” to Chinatown

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March 5, 2012 in Labor & Economy

 

Happy Birthday, Walmart! You great big mega-marketing rascal–you turn 50 this week. You’ve come such a long way from Roger, Arkansas, the tiny town at the foot of the Ozarks where you took your first wobbly steps.

Now you’re an international star! The planet’s biggest private-sector employer,  with 2.2 million “associates” throughout the world—we usually call ‘em employees, but whatever– 1.4 million in the United States. Creator of history’s most efficient global supply chain, you call the shots on production, wage and workplace standards around the world—the Walmart business model ruthlessly undercut those everywhere. Plus you have shriveled and destroyed small business communities in towns across the United States.

Star power, dudes.

Now you are here in Los Angeles celebrating the big Five Oh with a new acquisition.

It’s tasteful, not large and gaudy, like your typical 200,000 square foot megastore.  A valuable little gem.

You are establishing a small-scale grocery in Chinatown near downtown Los Angeles.

The news broke February 24, right here on Frying Pan News  – City Hall sources confirmed that Walmart has gotten some of the necessary permits to establish a 33,000 square foot grocery downstairs at a mixed-use complex at Cesar Chavez and Grand that includes a senior citizens complex.

Nice touch, Walmart, the senior living thing. Of course, local Chinatown mom-and-pop shops will be hard-put to keep up with your ability to stock factory-farmed foods from all over the world. Making omelets, breaking eggs—like that—can’t be sad about it.

Oh, oops! Sorry to be sour on your birthday. You look great. Check out that firm bottom line. Is that a muscular 27 percent increase in fourth quarter income in 2011 right there? DO NOT listen to the word “sagging” in reference to your domestic sales. Not what you want to hear on your 50th, Lord knows. The haters can be vicious.

But you know that declining domestic sales are the reason it’s so important for Walmart to move into L.A.’s Chinatown.

You have owned the rural and suburban areas in these United States for at least a decade now–but there’s gold in them there urban communities—maybe $100 billion to be made in ten cities, Los Angeles among them.

That’s according to Nelson Lichtenstein —who probably knows more about Walmart than anyone, including Walmart.

The historian and author of the lively book The Retail Revolution—How WalMart Created a Brave New World of Business, Lichtenstein has traveled the world–China, South Africa, Bentonville, AR– to document Walmart’s wildly successful and savvy combination of visionary technical know-how and backward, virulently anti-worker politics.

The Walmart model has re-made the global economic landscape—starting with the United States. The shoppers that make up Walmart’s base are precisely those hurt by the devastating economic downturn of the last few years, Lichtenstein told Frying Pan News, so they are spending a little less at Walmart.

Here’s the New York Times on that subject.

Since purchase power of Walmart’s traditional market has slipped it’s more important than ever to expand into cities.

Walmart may now be desperate enough for urban markets to sustain losses to get into L.A., Lichtenstein says, the Chinatown store may be an expensive experiment to establish a beachhead.

The uber-retailer has been discouraged from locating in L.A. because of an ordinance that requires reporting on employment and community standards—such trifles as health coverage, decent wages and  neighborhood environmental health.

The local Chinatown community, labor and others are mobilized against a Chinatown Walmart. The world’s Number One retailer may be in for a costly fight.

“The point is to get it in there,” Lichtenstein says. “Economics is irrelevant to placing this first neighborhood market.”

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Bobbi Murray
Bobbi Murray has reported on politics, economics, police reform and health-care issues for Los Angeles magazine, L.A. Weekly and The Nation.
Read more articles by Bobbi Murray

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