Wal-Mart angst: We hate the big box but we need the prices

October 20, 2011

What if it has a green rooftop?

How about a svelte, urban footprint? Underground parking?

Would a deluxe deli counter make it okay?

Wal-Mart is trying all kinds of moves to make nice with the last frontier it has left to conquer – urban America.

Locally, it is wooing the demi-urban land of Montgomery County and Arlington, which seem to be easier pickings for them, according to Wal-Mart watchers.

Maybe they could take the cue from Target and get Missoni on board. Or perhaps even one-up their rival’s recent deal with First Lady fashion fave Jason Wu and get royal wedding gown designer Sarah Burton to create a line of eco-friendly lingerie made from recycled Haitian rubble exclusively for Wal-Mart.

Even better, they can entice the First Lady into making a covert shopping trip!

Or maybe they can just hope for more things like my own, personal Fabric Scissors Coup.

We were in the wilds of beyond-the-beltway land on a camping trip last weekend when I realized we forgot our camping lantern. Of course, five minutes later I spotted a Wal-Mart. Easy to do on American highways.

We stopped, I popped in to buy a new lantern and returned with eight shopping bags.

After years of largely urban shopping, it was jaw-dropping (and cart-stopping, and wallet-opening) to be reminded of how darn cheap Wal-Mart is. (Go ahead, laugh. Yuppie parent rediscovers Wal-Mart. Ha-ha.)

I had to explain to my husband why we now had bathroom cleaner, stacks of the pricey iced tea mix we had stopped buying, self-rising flour and the super-cheap fabric scissors I’ve been denying myself because they were so expensive at the local fabric store.

“They were all so cheap!”

I know, I know. That fabulous cheapness is based largely on inhumanely-paid foreign laborers and vastly underpaid American workers, according to Wal-Mart critics. The corporation’s treatment of employees has not been exemplary, they say, and the stores flourish in the ashes of the small businesses they decimate. The pathetic place of women in their work ranks was even the subject of a case brought before the Supreme Court recently.

But the fact is, in this frigid recession with stubborn unemployment and mounting financial woes, the value of affordable shopping and having more jobs in your own community can take on a different ethical and moral heft.

Avoiding Wal-Mart now is not as simple as refusing to wear harp seal fur. For growing numbers of Americans struggling with lay-offs, shrinking incomes and rising prices, Wal-Mart is more than just a cheaper way to get the fabric scissors you didn’t need but really wanted. It can be one of the only ways to keep a household afloat.

That was clear in D.C. last year, where plans to build four of the company’s smaller, sleeker urban Wal-Mart stores in parts of the District that were bereft of quality, affordable retailers were largely met with cheers.

The Rev. Morris Shearin, pastor of Israel Baptist Church in Northeast D.C., wrote about the ethical conundrum of Wal-Mart when the company announced its proposal last year. He explained that “the confluence of challenging economic times and Wal-Mart’s less-than-stellar track record as an employer presents a moral imperative for me, as a faith leader, to seek assurances from the company on behalf of the least, the last and the left out.”

Wal-Mart responded with several million dollars in donations to job training programs, the Capital Area Food Bank, Boys & Girls Clubs and the Greater Washington Urban League.

Good on them. It’s a pittance for the mammoth company that, if it were a sovereign nation, would be China’s fifth- or sixth-largest export market, according to The Washington Post.

The advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch has been deriding these cash-for-access exchanges as “marketing” rather than charity, and they’ve followed Wal-Mart’s pattern for years as the company tries to ram its way into urban markets.

D.C. Jobs with Justice has been organizing a campaign to get the company to commit to sweeping benefits packages and liveable-wage salaries for its employees and to hire folks from the local communities, according to lead organizer MacKenzie Baris.

At least they got something.

What happened when the retail oligarch introduced plans this month for a 50,000-square-foot store in Arlington and two more in Montgomery County?

We didn’t hear the primal howl that erupted when the corporation first started colonizing the American hinterlands a couple decades ago. This time, the reaction was more of a perfunctory yowl.

I mean, it’s gotta hurt when it looks like Montgomery County may get another Wal-Mart before it finally gets a Wegmans, right?

But with the county’s rapidly changing demographics — it recently slipped from its spot in America’s top-10 income bracket, according to last month’s census reports -- maybe it’s time for recession chic.

Both counties immediately enacted emergency legislation to give themselves say in any kind of “big box” store that’s eyeing its neighborhoods. Besides wanting input on zoning and architecture, Montgomery County officials are looking for decent employee benefits, too.

Most of the citizen angst came from folks worried about traffic that the monster store might bring in. And don’t forget the horror-struck bagel lovers who read my colleague Michael Rosenwald’s report that the family-owned Bagel City on Rockville Pike would be displaced by a Wal-Mart.

The local governments might not stop Wal-Mart from coming. Few of them ever do. But they might be able to strike a deal with the company that makes for a decent workplace, provides job training and helps struggling families get through tough times.

And maybe a Bagel City cafe at the entrance. And that Sarah Burton line wouldn’t hurt, either.

Email me at dvorakp@washpost.com

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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