Friday, January 28, 2011

The "Inevitability" of Walmart

With a million dollar ad buy, to go along with a house poll that indicates that the Walmonster is loved and needed by a wide swath of New Yorkers, some people have been wondering whether the retail giant's entry into NYC is all but inevitable. This is pure balderdash-for a whole host of reasons. But in the first instance, the question of inevitability is obviated right off the bat by the sheer fact of the Walmart pr push-nothing that's inevitable needs to gain traction in this kind of well-resourced manner.

So, it would be fair to say that, of all the people who don't feel that Big Wally in NYC is inevitable, the good folks down in Bentonville would probably be first in line in the queue. As important in evaluating this question is the fact that Walmart's real game plan remains unknown-along with any of the potential specific sites it may have its eyes on. The reason why mention this point is that the entry of the company will ultimately hinge on the manner they plan to try to locate stores here-not only the number of stores but also the sites where those stores will be located. In the end, all of this comes down to a site fight.

For instance, let's take a look at Staten Island. The Staten Island Advance has been polling residents and the outcome appears to demonstrate a positive view of the store. In a story the other day, some of the Island's elected officials echoed that favored view-and one in particular caught our eye: "Walmart provides goods to people at an affordable price," said state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island). "They provide job opportunities. I don't see why government should be using politics to get in the way of shopping convenience for people."

Now we like Senator Lanza, but let's inject a little history lesson here. It was then Council member Lanza's community that shot down the Walmonster in Tottenville in 2006-and we were at the meeting of the civic association where Lanza's aid echoed the sentiment of the community in opposing the store at Richmond Valley Road. Current CM Ignizio reflects this: "Of course it would depend where it went and the impact on the community and traffic," said Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore). "But my constituents are using Walmart like crazy. Clearly people want options where to shop."

And in our view, we believe it is precisely the role of government-unless Lanza feels we should repeal the zoning laws-to determine whether a store is the right fit for a particular site in the community. So all of the public opinion polls-whether righteous or ersatz-don't mean squat. It always comes down to a site fight-which is why Related hid its interest in bringing Walmart to the expanded Gateway Mall. Full disclosure would have meant sure defeat because of the local opposition-something that was made plain to the duplicitous developer.

There are also other good reasons that merit the involvement of government when the Walmonster wants to come to town-and CM Debi Rose underscores this: "I am really not in favor of Walmart," said Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore). "Nationwide, they have a bad record on employee relations and wages. I also worry about the impact on mom and pop businesses."

The comments of lawmaker Mike Cusick were particularly on point-honing in on the small business impact: "Meanwhile, some lawmakers, like Assemblyman Michael Cusick, believe more information is needed. "My biggest concern about having Walmart, or any large chain, is what affect it would have on existing small businesses on Staten Island," said Cusick (D-Mid-Island). "Will there be a study done? Maybe the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce could find an independent business group to do one. Or does Walmart come in with honest data to show the effect on small business? People talk about the convenience of Walmart, and all it has to offer. But what is being overlooked is the affect on small businesses that are already struggling with a tough economy. The people who run those businesses are long-time time community members who have made their homes here. They are part of the landscape."

So, as far as inevitability is concerned, Walmart is way behind death and taxes-as is indicated by the fact that more and more electeds are signing up to oppose the store's entry. The NYO has the story: "The coalition to keep Walmart out of New York City added four new members today when Council members Tish James, Mathieu Eugene and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn and Robert Jackson of Manhattan announced their opposition to allowing the superstore to open in East New York. "Small businesses are the engines of the New York City economy, creating jobs, spending locally and keeping our dollars in the community," said James. "Walmart could put those small businesses out of business, costing us valuable jobs, as well as hurting our economy while doing so.  For these reasons, New York must say no to Walmart."

Our advice: Don't believe the hype. The anti-Walmonster coalition is growing daily as more and more people are educated about the damage-particularly to NYC's neighborhoods-that this retail predator can do. We'll see this coalition inn action down at our city hall rally next week. Stay tuned.