Friday, August 12, 2005

Cheap shot Wal-Mart

In a cheap shot at local area supermarkets Ryan Sager weighs in this morning about how the anti-Wal-Mart crowd is supposedly working to stop New Yorkers from getting low-priced groceries from a Wal-Mart supercenter. Once again, we find one of the retail giant’s supporters glossing over some facts about the predator that all city shoppers should be aware of.

In the first place Sager continues to remain in the dark about the importance of the ecology of this city’s neighborhoods. While he remains uninformed, however, New York’s neighborhood leaders are keenly aware of the “high cost of low prices.” This awareness was first brought home when the Alliance was successfully fighting to prevent a Pathmark shopping center from locating on Ditmars boulevard in Astoria. While we were working with the Astoria Heights Homeowners and Tenants Association and the United Concerned Citizens organization, the developer of the shopping center was putting full page ads in the local paper accusing Richard Lipsky personally of trying to block Astoria residents from having access to lower prices.

On a hot July evening, ten years ago, over 500 community members came out to denounce the shopping center. The community’s concern was that the project would erode the neighborhood’s quality of life by greatly increasing local traffic, encouraging transiency and crime and reduce the viability of the area’s local shopping centers.

Ryan, it’s the location

That shopping center was never build and it’s important to point out that the fight was never really about Pathmark (a company that Sager unfairly characterizes, along with Key Food and D’Agostino, as “flabby”). It was all about the inappropriateness of the size of that project in the location chosen by the developer.

We’ve made the same point about some of the propaganda coming from Wal-Mart’s pollsters. While the labor practices of the company and its retrograde social policies will always be a galvanizing issue, it will inevitably come down to a site fight when the company looks to build in this city.

Our guess is that large majorities of Staten Islanders who leave on the South Shore would, when polled, express generalized support for Wal-Mart. That generalized sentiment, however, will not translate into the same levels of support for a store there in Richmond Valley.

Labor Costs and the Price of Groceries

One other important point raised by Sager is that the correlation between labor costs and the prices of groceries. He raises a valid issue here, one that deserves the most open discussion. 60% of a supermarket’s overhead is in its labor costs so it stands to reason that if you can dramatically reduce these costs you can concomitantly lower the price of cheerios. There must be total transparency on this point. The lowering of labor costs means that workers will be paid less, and have fewer benefits at the same time they are losing the job protection and security that their union provides. In addition, and Sager should be extremely sensitive to this point, the fact that Wal-Mart is the leading promoter of corporate welfare in this country, forcing hundreds of thousands of its poorly compensated workers to access public health care benefits, means that lower grocery prices are being matched by higher health care costs and taxes for all New Yorkers.

Competition and Neighborhood Economies

Sager’s cheap shot at “flabby” local stores conceals that his notion of flab is the meat and potatoes that provide over 50,000 NYC supermarket workers with the ability to actually support a family. Even beyond this, however, is the fact that one of the flabby stores he singles out for opprobrium is Key Food, which isn’t a chain at all but a 200+ store co-op whose units are owned and run mainly by single proprietors.

These Key Food stores and the other independent supermarkets that are predominately minority-owned are the linchpin of neighborhood economies that have been resurrected by these risk-taking entrepreneurs from the devastation that affected this city thirty years ago. It is the successful revival of neighborhoods that has been a major variable in the dramatic reduction of crime in New York. People on the streets and neighbors shopping with neighbors is not some nostalgic vision but the actual description of vibrant commercial shopping areas. These strips bring more value to this city than the cheap sweatshop-produced goods that Wal-Mart imports.