Wal-Mart blues

Wal-Mart’s plans to build 230 Supercenters and up to 50 discount stores and Sam’s Club stores across the United States have met strong resistance in some Wisconsin communities.

Some residents and business owners in Franklin, Germantown and Beaver Dam have strongly opposed plans for large Wal-Mart facilities in their cities.

Germantown officials approved plans for a 203,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store, but a proposed 184,000 square-foot Wal-Mart in Franklin hit a road block and the company appears to have dropped its plans there. In Beaver Dam, Wal-Mart wants to build a 1.2 million-square-foot distribution center.

In the past, Wal-Mart critics have focused on the company’s low wages, lack of union workers and unattractive facades.

However, now, according Madison attorney and anti-Wal-Mart crusader Ed Garvey, more issues have arisen about Wal-Mart stores, including environmental hazards, traffic congestion, noise, crime and the closing of local businesses.

"The small-business community is starting to wake up to the threat that Wal-Mart poses," Garvey said. "I compare it to the Ebola virus coming up from Illinois, where we would move heaven and earth to fight it."

Garvey said the presence of a Wal-Mart in a small community shuts down local bicycle shops, florists and now grocers with the introduction of the Supercenter, a discount store combined with a supermarket.

"The community will lose the character of its downtown, the independent businesses and the diversity that makes it the community it is," Garvey said.

John Bisio, the regional manager of community affairs for Wal-Mart, said it is reasonable to expect some level of opposition when a proposal for a Wal-Mart store comes to a community.

"In Franklin, I think the issue was very contentious, and a lot of people had concerns that were less about Wal-Mart and more about the appropriateness of that kind of development," Bisio said. "The people who would shop there would be from that general area, and the suggestion that Wal-Mart would attract a bad element is really unfortunate."

Garvey said Wal-Mart spokesmen claim some criticism of the chain is not valid, but they will not pay for an environmental impact study survey or prove that Wal-Mart can be beneficial to a town.

"I would say over time, historically, we have not done a good job of responding to assertions and claims that Wal-Mart is bad for a community," Bisio said. "We were all of the sudden one of the fastest growing businesses, and we just recently created government affairs, community affairs and media relations departments. We did not anticipate that once we became No. 1 we would become the No. 1 target and have competitors try to restrict our advancement because they don’t want to change."

Garvey accused Wal-Mart of not giving back to the communities in which the stores are built and said Wal-Mart could care less about what happens to a community.

"There are some things that people exaggerate and really are out of bounds as they try to characterize Wal-Mart as this bad corporate citizen or bad employer," Bisio said. "There are a lot of claims that don’t have merit."

According to Bisio, Wal-Mart employees cannot be everywhere all of the time to defend the company and dispel rumors, but the new community affairs departments will enable Wal-Mart to have spokespeople educating the public and talking to local media and elected officials.

"Someone else has been telling our story and has done it with less than altruistic intentions," Bisio said. "They are trying to somehow keep out competition or oppose the company that has become very successful in retail. I think we now have a real opportunity to step up and tell our story and engage people and to be as forthcoming as possible. We have nothing to lose and nothing to hide."

Some local business organizations are preparing to compete with Wal-Mart. Brian Pope, the director of development for the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, makes presentations on request to area chambers of commerce called, "How to Battle Big Boxes."

"Wal-Mart has a lot of buying power, savvy people and great management," Pope said. "As a retailer, the most important thing is to fully understand your customers and their needs, then develop business strategies that meet those needs. Wal-Mart does that, and if you are not, then you are going into the game two strikes down and it is not a favorable situation."

Pope said he suggests business owners spend time in a Wal-Mart store to see its weaknesses and make them the strength of their business. Where local businesses cannot compete in price, they can make up in quality, service and expertise, he said.

According to Pope, some products that Wal-Mart carries, such as hardware items, may require assistance as they are installed. That is the kind of service a smaller retail can provide to consumers after the goods are purchased at Wal-Mart, Pope said.

"You can’t really influence what Wal-Mart does," Pope said. "It may be detrimental to a business if Wal-Mart opens seven miles away. But if you are a unique product or service company and understand how you fit into the marketplace and how people value your business, then Wal-Mart’s coming should not be a concern to you."

Bisio said Wal-Mart is not trying to open a store every five or 10 miles, but the chain will open stores in towns where there is a large customer need based on a point-of-purchase study that records the various zip codes of people who pay with credit cards and personal checks.

"Once (Wal-Mart) is there, the simple fact is that the store is so big that it drives other businesses out," Garvey said. "I would die before I ever step foot in a Wal-Mart."

July 9, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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