A group of Wal-Mart representatives stopped by The Washington Post last week to answer questions about the retailer's plans to open four stores in the District of Columbia.
They talked about bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the city's "grocery deserts," and about boosting neighborhood job rolls. They reminded us how D.C. residents already spend $41 million a year at Wal-Marts outside the nation's capital, so why not keep some of that money closer to home?
Why not indeed.
I have marveled for some time now at the retail phenomenon that is the Target store in Columbia Heights. My regular commute takes me by the neighborhood, and invariably someone will be walking along, lugging two or three bags of everyday whatnot. More than once, a bike has rolled by, its rider awkwardly schlepping a floor lamp or some other impossibly bulky household item.
Never underestimate the resourcefulness of the urban shopper, I think.
Except for a long time, that's precisely what a great number of retailers did.
Sentiment seems to be shifting, though. More people these days are moving into the city than out, and restaurateurs and shopkeepers are taking notice.
Wal-Mart's plans are clearly among the bolder attempted here, not just in the number of stores being proposed but in the forms they will take. The new downtown stores will be smaller than the sprawling supercenters folks are accustomed to in the hinterlands. One will be tucked into a multi-story mixed-use complex; another on top of a yet-to-be named big box.
Wal-Mart would like to begin construction on its initial store this fall. But first, it will have to overcome objections about its wage scale and address neighborhood development concerns.
The risks are not only political. There's also the question of whether it is reading the market right. If they build it, will the shoppers come? And if they do come, how long will Wal-Mart have the neighborhood to itself?
Rivals are almost certain to respond. One Wal-Mart executive noted that two grocery stores near his company's proposed sites have already announced plans to upgrade their establishments.
It should be a fascinating business story to watch.