Friday, January 07, 2011

Polling for Dollars

As if Wal-Mart didn't have enough of its own resources to get its self serving message across, along comes the NY Post to help the poor pitiful giant along. In today's paper, the Post's own Paladin, Carl Campanile, reprises results from Big Wally's commissioned poll-and reports on it as if the results were unquestionable: "City Council members are trying to stir up public opposition to block Walmart from opening shop in the Big Apple -- but it turns out their constituents love the big-box retailer. Walmart surveyed likely voters in the districts of 10 council members involved in fighting or investigating the nation's largest retail chain -- including vocal opponent Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron."

Has there ever been a corporate poll than has been given such unassailed validity? But Campanile did give us the end quote that helps put this propaganda effort into some perspective: "But opponents representing unionized department stores and mom-and-pop shops dismissed the poll by the non-union Walmart as propaganda. "I don't put any stock in a poll conducted and paid for by that corporation. I don't treat it with anything but a grain of salt," said Richard Lipsky, a spokesman for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and a network of Hispanic and Korean small businesses that fear that competition from low-cost Walmart would put them out of business."

As indeed the Walmonster would-which is precisely why the city council is holding its hearing next week to explore the collateral damages that a proliferation of Walmarts-big and small-would heap on this city. After all, Big Wally is claiming that its arrival is a good thing because it would be a job generator. Our own view, one that is shared by academics and activists alike, is that the Walmart invasion would put a serious hurt on the NYC economy-but particularly on the small business sector that the mayor has treated much like a piƱata.

Here's just one example from Crain's that gives you a flavor of the Bloombergistas disdain for local entrepreneurs: "Supermarkets are in hot water again, just four months after being fined a collective $380,000 by the Department of Consumer Affairs for overcharging shoppers, among other issues. The city agency conducted 500 inspections at 408 supermarkets in all five boroughs, concluding that the industry has a citywide compliance rate of just 33%, down from 48% in August when it released the results of a similar sweep."

This is simply a load of crap-and fits in nicely with the multi-million dollar regulatory assault on the local restaurants in New York. In our view, it is no accident that, as Walmart is poised to try to enter NY, the city is busy denigrating local supermarkets. Giuliani did the same thing in the run up to his mega store campaign. City supermarkets are not only competitive with national chains, but are so in the face of the country's worst tax and regulatory climate-something that the Post should be right on top of.

And because of this climate, they are rapidly becoming an endangered species-something that the Walmart invasion will hasten; to the detriment of the city's goal of getting better access to fresh produce in underserved areas. Put simply, it is a zero-sum game when the Walmonster comes to town-and a lot more is lost than gained when it comes to tax revenues and jobs. Public opinion aside-whatever that opinion really is-and the task of the city council is one of oversight-and since the Bloomberg administration does oversight like the three blind mice, this upcoming hearing is certainly welcomed.

As to the poll itself, well, we have been doing land use site fights in this city for thirty years, and what we have found from this experience is that there is always a large reservoir of  theoretical support for this store or that-so the Walmart poll that found that people would welcome the retail giant in their neighborhoods has a certain degree of theoretical resonance.

But that theoretical support often-and, quite often in our experience-evaporates when a particular store is sited for a particular site in a particular neighborhood. This was demonstrated conclusively when the Tottenville community told the Walmonster to take a hike-in spite of the fact that many residents of that community travel across the Outerbridge to shop at Walmart in Perth Amboy.

And one other important point. Site fights are by their nature educational-they are opportunities to teach local folks about those collateral damages that developers-and the mayor's minions-always are looking to downplay. Which is why we are so upset about the possibility of a Walmonster in East New York-it was done in a dishonest bait-and-switch manner that avoided the kind of site fight that would have, once the folks were educated, exposed the lack of validity of any corporate poll.

So if Walmart is getting ready to come to NY, let the fight be above board. Their message of jobs and low prices will be exposed once people understand the high cost they will be forced to pay for the Walmonster's low prices.