Wal-Mart vs. Target (and wages and small businesses)


Commuters pass the new Wal-Mart on Georgia Ave. in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

The opening of the District’s first two Wal-Mart stores last week drew hundreds of shoppers.

But the retailer’s arrival has also attracted its share of opposition from labor groups, community activists and small mom-and-pop businesses. We take a look at how Wal-Mart’s presence in the District may affect the area’s businesses and residents.

Unions

Labor unions and activist groups have long taken issue with the nation’s largest retailer, accusing it of underpaying workers and offering sub-par benefits.

Now, as Wal-Mart moves into the District, local groups say they worry its arrival will nudge down pay for retail and grocery workers in the area.

“One of the big concerns is going to be the negative effect on wages,” said Mike Wilson, an organizer for Respect D.C., a local union-backed advocacy group. “We don’t want local retail to be an industry where people are forced to exist on poverty wages.”

The debate over what constitutes a “living wage” has already resulted in a months-long battle between Wal-Mart and the District. In July, the D.C. Council passed a bill that would have required Wal-Mart and similar big-box stores to pay at least $12.50 an hour, well over the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) eventually vetoed the legislation after Wal-Mart threatened to scale back its plans for the District.

But the debate continues. On Tuesday the council moved to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 in 2016. Even if the legislation is enacted, activists say Wal-Mart’s presence could erode workers’ rights, particularly for unionized employees at Safeway and Giant.

“Wal-Mart is certainly aggressive about keeping the majority of their workers part time and resisting unionization,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, an advocacy group in the District. “The downward pressure will be most evident in grocery wages.”

District minimum wage: $8.25 now; possibly $11.50 in 2016, if Mayor Gray signs off on pending legislation.

Small businesses

Hiwet Woldeselassie has been running a hot dog stand on North Capitol Street NW for 23 years.

Now, with the opening of the H Street Wal-Mart just around the corner, she says she wonders whether her small stand will be able to survive.

“I know everyone. This is my neighborhood,” said Woldeselassie, who lives in Northwest Washington. “I’m trying my best here and hoping people will keep coming.”

Local business owners near the two Wal-Mart stores say they are worried the chain’s low prices and one-stop convenience will lure away long-time customers.

“Now people will go there instead,” said Grace Park, a manager at Park’s Hardware on H Street NE.

The store, which issues about 20 fishing licenses a month, will have new competition from Wal-Mart, which not only sells hunting and fishing licenses, but also groceries, clothing and electronics.

At Dollar & Beyond on Georgia Avenue NW, manager Usman Qureshi said metered parking spaces in front of the store had been removed to make way for Wal-Mart customers.

“It’s affecting us already,” Qureshi said. “Of course I’m going to get hit if people can’t even park here.”

But not all nearby businesses are dismayed. A manager at the Subway shop a few doors down from the H Street Wal-Mart said he expects business to improve.

“More traffic, more people, more business,” said Mamun Liton. “It will be good for us because Wal-Mart employees will come here to eat.”

Two-liter bottle of Coke: $1.99 at Dollar & Beyond, $1 at Wal-Mart.

Target

There are, Tameca Herbert says, two types of people: Wal-Mart devotees and those who prefer Target.

She is among the latter.

“I like Target better,” said Herbert, who stopped by to check out the H Street Wal-Mart on opening day. “It’s a little more upscale.”

Target, which has one location in the District and is considering opening another one downtown, has held a stronghold among big-box retailers in the District since the opening of its Columbia Heights store in 2008.

But that may be changing with Wal-Mart’s arrival. More than 100 people lined up for its stores’ openings on Wednesday. Many had woken up early for the occasion, while others had taken the day off work to be there for the retailer’s arrival.

Sharon “Cookie” Jackson, 65, said she sometimes shops at the Target in Columbia Heights. But most days, she would rather drive up to the Wal-Mart in Laurel or Arundel Mills.

Now with the opening of the H Street Wal-Mart, she sees little reason to step foot in Target again.

“Wal-Mart’s a whole lot cheaper than Target,” Jackson said as she filled her cart with Christmas gifts on opening day. “And I don’t think the selection is as cute at Target, especially with girls’ jewelry.”

Across the store, Pamela Scott Washington shopped for groceries.

“I feel like the queen of Wal-Mart,” the 56-year-old said. “I’m going to be here at least three or four times a week, as often as I can.”

One gallon of whole milk: $3.75 at Wal-Mart, $3.89 at Target.

Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.

Abha Bhattarai covers local retail, hospitality and banking for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

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