Wal-Mart flexes
political muscle

The giant retailer has backed efforts to undo
local ordinances that block its expansion

LOS ANGELES >> Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has gotten more headlines lately for aggressive electioneering than for discount retailing.

The company has championed a series of voter initiatives in hopes of overturning local ordinances that block its expansion. In the San Francisco Bay area county of Contra Costa, Wal-Mart spent more than a half-million dollars to gather enough signatures to put a county ban on big-box stores before voters. They ultimately defeated the ban.

A Wal-Mart lawsuit was enough to prompt officials in nearby Alameda County to repeal a similar ban. And, most notably, voters in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood earlier this month rejected a Wal-Mart ballot initiative that would have bypassed local government and allowed a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center to be built.

Wal-Mart's more assertive tactics might become commonplace as the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer moves to open or expand scores of stores nationwide during the next 10 months, particularly in metropolitan areas. That includes plans for up to 240 of its 200,000-square-foot Supercenters -- discount store-supermarket hybrids that many communities have sought to block.

In Honolulu, the company is opening a combined Wal-Mart and Sam's Club double-decker shopping complex near Ala Moana this fall.

"People support and want Wal-Mart Supercenters," Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos said. "We're going to do everything in our power to make certain that Wal-Mart customers are heard."

But Kanelos also said the company devises its strategy on a case-by-case basis, depending on the reaction it gets in a given locale.

Other big-box retailers such as Target and Costco typically do not run into the kind of opposition that Wal-Mart does, so they don't have to employ the same tactics, said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist for Deloitte Research in N.Y.

"They're basically dealing with planning commissions and the people in charge of land use, or they're dealing with developers," Steidtmann said. "They're not having to address what's really a political issue, which Wal-Mart, in some instances, does have to deal with."

Wal-Mart's detractors contend the company's stores drive down wages and benefits, worsen traffic and sprawl and force neighborhood businesses under. As its recent loss in Inglewood indicates, Wal-Mart's campaigns can be as unwelcome as its stores.

"I have not witnessed the kind of bullying that I saw in Inglewood by any other corporation or business that wanted to come in," said the Rev. Norman Johnson, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles.

John W. Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said Wal-Mart asked him for his support in the Inglewood vote, but he opted not to get involved.

"I just didn't feel comfortable with the strategy in Inglewood of going the initiative route in a way that it would bypass the city government's policies," Mack said.


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