A day before hundreds of customers snaked around H St. NW, waiting to get inside of one of the city’s first two Wal-Marts, I entered the towering 74,000 square foot store through an entrance with far less fanfare: the loading dock. Taking a press tour, I was introduced to my first taste of corporate culture at Wal-Mart.
There was a receiving line set up at the back, with checklists, badges and sign-in sheets of all types on the tables and walls. One worker said, in a concerned voice, that without a badge, “they might say something.” I assured those present that if anyone asks me what I’m doing, I’ll just tell that person the truth and be fine. The employee seemed shocked.
Inside, a Wal-mart is a Wal-mart. There are foodstuffs as far as the eye can see and you have to duck to make sure the falling low prices don’t hit you in the aisles. Meanwhile, this ‘urban’ Wal-mart has a custom-built interactive display for Beats By Dre and the new iPhone 5c. The bike section sits on the same row as the lacrosse sticks and yarn. There is apparel for sale of both Washington and Dallas’ NFL franchises.
But for all the items, it was the employees that were impossible to ignore. Leading up to the official VIP unveiling that night, teams of associates, as they call them, were practicing their cheers while the last minute stages of the store were set up before the big day. The chants included a couple random pop culture references, such as one that included Drake’s “Started From The Bottom.”
The corporate speak continues even with the most basic of pleasantries: If someone says ‘thank you’ they say “my privilege.” That reply is a twist on Chick-Fil-A’s practice of servers saying ‘it’s my pleasure’ when thanked. This is Wal-Mart’s folksy brand of customer appreciation.
Most of the associates are relatively young and black. They express themselves personally by accessorizing their otherwise bland work outfits, some in a more colorful fashion than others. In a world of pre-packaged commercialization with a subtle hint of Christian values-based themes, these employees look like they’re having fun.
One of them is Jasmine Copeland. A native of Northeast, her road to being an assistant store manager started in Alexandria where she worked as a tire technician. After moving around different jobs at the store, she was promoted quickly. She’s been at her current position for two years.
“I think they’re very excited about us being here,” Copeland said, in reference to her staffers. “Just having to adjust [to the fact] that this is kind of like, corporate. That’s what we are. It’s not a typical ‘oh, I’m just coming to work.’ … It’s not just being a cashier forever. Once they learned the benefits, the culture, it all started at the hiring center, it all started with the interviews. The expectations and what we wanted. They just carried that on from there. It’s like a fever everybody’s caught. This is just what it is. This is how our stores operate.”
Copeland’s observations on the nature of that operation will be the most important thing in determining if Wal-Mart wins in the court of public opinion in their latest experiment with big city stores. If Wal-Mart can find a way to make their rah-rah style translate to the lives of Washingtonians most eager for jobs, it’ll be a hit. But this isn’t the Ozarks, where the company was started. On H Street NW, it’s gotten off to a great start. If their corporate model can’t adapt to this workforce, don’t expect people to still be streaming through the doors years from now.
For sure, the company’s larger PR scuffles are well-known. There’s the issue of worker pay, along with the political fight locally over minimum wage regulations. There are persistent concerns from unions and the belief that small businesses around it will collapse from the competition.
It’s still early, but the last one, in this case, doesn’t seem valid for this store. Located at 1st and H Streets, with a parking lot below and right along two major bus lines, the location is ideal for many. Although things are always complicated regarding the impact Wal-mart has on surrounding communities, there are not a mass of mom and pops in the nearby area that are likely to get swallowed up. As part of a mixed-use development, this store makes a lot of sense.
Something that later that night, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was eager to brag about. After Duke Ellington student Marc Banks-Mackey sang the national anthem, and a couple other Wal-Mart exec types spoke to the crowd, (one even said a future president of Wal-Mart could be among the current staff) the mayor was pumped up. This opening was just as much a victory speech as it was a welcome.
“And we all know … that nobody wanted these jobs. That’s what we were told, right? Nobody wanted these jobs. That’s why we only had 23,000 people to apply,” Gray said sarcastically, an obvious jab at Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At-Large), who was present, his vociferous stance on not caving to an ultimatum set by Wal-Mart on the living wage bill notwithstanding.
“We know that people are leaving the District of Columbia in droves to go and shop at Wal-Mart. Now we got our own Wal-mart in the District of Columbia,” Gray said. “We got two. We got this one right here, I grew up in this neighborhood. Little different place than I grew up, I’ll tell you that. And the one that I’m really looking forward to is Skyland.”
Gray was so excited about Wal-Mart coming to his home ward that he even broke out the old phonetic colloquialism for Southeast D.C. “Y’all know what I mean when I say this. WalMart is coming to Soufeast y’all. Everybody knows how to spell Soufeast. S-O-U-F-E-A-S-T. SOUF-EAST. … If I say I’m excited, if I say I’m happy, it’s because I am.”
You don’t say.
Meanwhile, the workers were ever-present during the event, standing the entire time. Separated from the very important people by a short wall of shopping carts and shelves lined with discount mashed potatoes, soup and shells with cheese, they were constantly vocal. When asked how they were feeling that night, the nearly 100 of them yelled, in unison, “fired up!” They had full-throated personalized greetings for each speaker. Every time they were thanked by higher-ups on the dais, which were many, in chorus they said their signature version of ‘you’re welcome.’ When a local pastor who happens to also be an associate ended the invocation with “Jesus, Amen,” seemingly less rehearsed, they shouted back “Amen.”
The militaristically precise wall of sound felt genuinely motivated. One worker told me that he was moved to this location temporarily from one in Northern Virginia, and never wanted to go back to his old store. While invitees perused the gray-floored store on guided tours, the associate teams continued their chants, and danced in the aisles as teams. In addition to being employed, they were part of the show, apparently. Nobody seemed to mind. Some of the corporate guests looked caught off guard, though.
Overall, Wal-Mart in D.C. is not a proverbial square peg in a round hole. But in addition to all the charitable work they do, finding a way to respectfully mesh with a city full of workers that have been neglected in many ways for so long is paramount. Setting aside the other issues, it’s hard to argue with job opportunities and food access. But if their corporate mission doesn’t grow with each new major city they expand to, their efforts might be for naught. At store #5941, that blend has already been effective enough to get a high-quality store up and running, with employees enjoying the experience.
Yet, on Tuesday night, after all the fanfare was over and the political heavies and socialites had gone, the culture of corporate still sent a strong message. A good hour after everyone else was allowed to pick at the platters with shrimp cocktail and curry chicken salad with raisins among them, the DJ played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” as guests filed out. The associates lined up. They were finally allowed to eat. Last and by themselves.
I guess it was their privilege.