The first Wal-Marts in the nation’s capital opened for business Wednesday, drawing a handful of protesters and many more customers, who lined up to buy discount groceries, electronics and household items.
The ribbon-cuttings eclipsed, for now, a lengthy civic debate over how best to serve the District’s middle- and working-class residents in an ever-more-expensive city. One view was to force large retailers to pay higher wages, even if it drove them away. Another was to lure the world’s largest retailer and take advantage of its low prices for everyday goods, which had previously been available only in the suburbs.
City leaders ultimately chose the latter, joining Chicago and Philadelphia in embracing the new wave of urban Wal-Marts and parting with New York and Boston, where strong unions and their demands for higher wages have kept the giant retailer away.
The lines that formed early Wednesday outside the stores allowed the politicians and executives who had gathered for the festivities to claim instant vindication.
“I will never go to a Wal-Mart in Maryland again,” said Pamela Scott Washington, 56, who pushed a cart with two tomatoes and a head of lettuce around the H Street NW store. “I live in D.C., and that’s where I want to shop. . . . I’m going to be here at least three or four times a week, as often as I can.”
Whether the city’s decision to embrace Wal-Mart was the right one is a question that will play out over months and years, as the stores’ effect on jobs, local businesses and community development is scrutinized.
A small group of protesters demonstrated early in the morning outside the other store, on Georgia Avenue NW in the Brightwood neighborhood. Their primary beef was the chain’s historically low wages and its role in income inequality generally.
Inside, a high-ranking Wal-Mart executive hailed his company’s new employees for passing through a process arguably as selective as admission to an Ivy League college.
“Twenty-three thousand applications for about 800 jobs,” said Senior Vice President Henry Jordan, manager of nearly 900 East Coast stores. “You are the best of the best.”
Those employees — who clapped, chanted and whooped as their first official workday got underway — are making wages the company has described only as “competitive.”
City politicians spent much of this year debating whether to require Wal-Mart to provide its workers with no less than $12.50 an hour in wages and benefits — half again as much as the city’s current minimum wage. The “living-wage” measure died after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) vetoed it amid threats from Wal-Mart that it would curtail its plans for operating in the city, and the D.C. Council could not muster the votes to override him.
Gray, who on Monday announced his intention to seek reelection, attended the opening of the Georgia Avenue store, ticking off such benefits as reducing “retail leakage” to the suburbs and the number of “food deserts.” So did one of the foremost proponents of the large-retailer wage bill, D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large).
Orange, who is running for mayor, said he had made peace with Wal-Mart — particularly after the council voted unanimously Tuesday to raise the citywide minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016. That outcome, he said, wouldn’t have been possible without the Wal-Mart debate setting the table for a broader increase in the minimum wage. “You have to go through stuff to get to stuff,” he said.
The tension over Wal-Mart’s wages and business practices receded into the background as the politicians moved out and the customers — many of them from the surrounding neighborhoods — came in.
“It’s exciting; it really is. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 30 years and to have a Wal-Mart here? That’s amazing,” said Ken Moore, 49, who took the day off from work at a downtown construction site to accompany his elderly mother the mile from her home near the old Walter Reed hospital to the new Brightwood Wal-Mart in Northwest.
An aisle away from Moore’s cart, piled high with 97-cent rolls of paper towel, Sarit Lisogorsky debated just how much business she wanted to give to a company that she sees as morally bankrupt because of the low wages that often accompany its low-cost goods.
“Morally, I don’t agree with Wal-Mart’s practices,” she added. “I wish they were different, but I am here, so maybe I am not a very moral person.”
In her cart were her children, 3-year-old Rotem and 1 -year-old Shahar, a pile of $1 Chobani yogurt cups, a stock of cheese slices and a pair of pink ballerina flats for Rotem. “The trip was worth it just for those,” Lisogorsky said of the hard-to find slippers.
Near the front of the Georgia Avenue store, shoppers loaded up on $2.50 pineapples and $1.98 cantaloupes in a neighborhood that’s long relied on corner convenient stores, with their canned and frozen goods.
By lunchtime, there was a dent in a display of two-pound bags of kale and collard greens. And by evening, even the exotic fruit had been well picked over: Supplies of starfruit (50 cents each) and maradol papayas (88 cents a pound) were running low.
D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) stood outside Wednesday afternoon greeting customers and readily defending Wal-Mart, which she said was broadening the city’s retail options.
“This is what I know,” said Bowser, who is running for mayor. “Residents of the District of Columbia shop at Wal-Mart every day, and this is the first day that they have been able to not leave their neighborhoods and go to Maryland or Virginia to do it.”
Bowser said some residents “have the luxury of making philosophical decisions” about what they buy and where they buy it.
For those who don’t, she said, “I’m just glad that there is another option for fresh food, another option for goods in neighborhoods where people may not be able to hop in their Lexus and go out to Alexandria to shop.”
Academic research on Wal-Mart’s arrival in Chicago suggests that the chain can have an adverse effect on nearby small businesses, particularly those that sell similar products. But on Day 1, the businesses immediately across the street from the Georgia Avenue store were less concerned about Wal-Mart stealing their customers than about losing their parking.
Staff at two stores, Dollar & Beyond and #1 Beauty Supply, fumed over the removal of metered parking spaces in front of the shops. They said their customers were accustomed to pulling up in front to buy a snack or run a quick errand. But as Wal-Mart’s opening approached, the District government removed the spaces to create a turning lane for cars entering the store’s garage.
“People come in, grab stuff and go,” said Kamran Qureshi of Dollar & Beyond, where a two-liter bottle of Coke was priced Wednesday at $1.99 — 99 cents more than at Wal-Mart. “Now, if they want to get something quick, they’re not going to have to drive all the way around. I think we deserve at least the parking.”
Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the unsuccessful living-wage effort drove past the Georgia Avenue store Wednesday on his way to a clergy meeting. The Rev. Graylan S. Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said that although the broader campaigns around Wal-Mart’s entry into the District might be over, he expects a more personalized activism to replace it.
“I know some of my congregants are going to be shopping there,” he said. “I have not called for a boycott or anything like that. But I said, ‘Understand, when you make this corporation richer, it’s at the expense of making somebody poorer.’ ”
Hagler recalled watching Wal-Mart commercials in the days leading up to last week’s Black Friday sales rush, ads that touted the retailer’s employee benefits.
“We want to make sure that’s real,” he said, adding that he thinks the company can transcend its reputation: “I’m a believer. Anybody can be healed. Anybody can be redeemed. Even corporations.”
Jonathan O’Connell and Abha Bhattarai contributed to this report.