Monday, January 31, 2011

Walmart: Trying to Be Inevitable and Edible

In a public relations push that is reminiscent of certain mayoral campaigns Walmart, in an effort to encourage the impression of inevitability, is spending money a la Bloomberg-just like a drunken stockbroker ordering lap dances and bottles of Chrystal over at Scores. Adam Lisberg fills us in over at the NY Daily News: "Walmart has a message for the City Council: you don't matter anymore. It's a provocative stance for the nation's biggest retailer to take, as the Council prepares for a hearing Thursday on Walmart's push to finally open stores in the city. Walmart won't be there. Instead, it's launching a new ad campaign taking aim at the Council, some labor unions and other groups that are trying to block it."

What's the message? Apparently that the city's land use laws should be repealed: ""You don't ask the special interests or the political insiders for permission to use the bathroom," says a mailer going to homes in 10 Council districts this week. "So why should they decide where you're allowed to shop?" Similar ads will air on radio stations and in community newspapers. It's a sharper tone than Walmart has taken before - and signals that while Walmart will pillory its opponents, it won't bother engaging with them. "The key message here is that New Yorkers should decide where they shop and work," said Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo. "Some of the louder voices in the debate don't represent the interests of New Yorkers."

So the city's elected reps are the special interests, while the folks from Bentonville, Arkansas are the purveyors of the public good. Who would have thought? New Yorkers will always decide where they want to shop, but it is the city council that decides whether a particular site is appropriate for a certain retail use. Which is why, if you are a department store or a grocery store bigger than 10,000 square feet, and you want to locate in a manufacturing area, you need to get a special use permit or a zoning change-which requires city council approval.

We fought this battle in the nineties against Rudy and thoroughly kicked his ass-fighting for the right of neighborhoods to control what gets sited in and around their communities. But what would Steve Restivo-or, better yet, Bradly Tusk-know about NYC neighborhoods; places that exist only to exploit for the corporate bottom line.

Lisberg goes on to point out that the Walmonster is looking for as-of-right sites that don't require council approval. If so, why the multi-million dollar ad campaign? "The company is looking for sites that don't need zoning changes or government permits - challenges that have successfully kept it out of New York so far.It hopes to open stores far smaller than suburban locations, some the size of neighborhood groceries. And it has convinced construction unions to part company with grocery unions and support them."

Stu Appelbaum of the RWDSU objects to the special interest labeling: "We are in the people's interest. Walmart is a special interest," said Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, which represents grocery store employees. "They're transferring the cost of doing business to taxpayers when we have to pick up the tab for health care and inadequate wages."

Walmart, for its part, wants no part of a public debate-instead looking, once again a la Bloomberg, to present an expensive and unfiltered message to a relatively uninformed public: "Council Speaker Christine Quinn said Walmart's decision to buy ads instead of answering questions at a hearing shows they are afraid."People can run whatever ads they want," Quinn said. "It really speaks volumes that they're not willing to show up in front of government and answer questions." The ad campaign, however, is aimed at winning support in the public mind - not in the Council. To Walmart, the Council and its traditional allies are increasingly irrelevant."

Crain's, with a good reporter reduced to Carl Campanile status, picks up the Lisberg theme: "Walmart is blanketing the media with ads and poll results, arguing that in tough times, people want jobs and cheap groceries. It is wooing construction unions to its side. And it has neutralized opponents' key blocking tool by seeking store sites that don't require government approvals. The retailer's strong hand has led some in organized labor to wonder whether it's time to revamp their opposition strategy and focus on ways to soften the impact of the retailer's increasingly likely arrival."

What sites are those? And, as we said above, if the Walmonster has all of those sites, why spend all of this money-looking to purchase a sense of legitimacy? Crains does underscore that there is a growing grass roots opposition being mobilized against the retail giant: "But most labor, community and small business opponents are far from throwing in the towel. Instead, they're waging an aggressive campaign to make a case that Walmart kills jobs, drives retail salaries down and hurts small business. They're enlisting elected officials and courting community leaders...“Walmart is spending inordinate amounts of money selling false promises to New York City,” said Stephanie Yazgi, director of Walmart Free NYC, a coalition of labor, small businesses and community groups. “If Walmart was inevitable, they would be here by now.”

And Big Wally wouldn't be hawking fruits and veggies either if it were so inevitable: "Earlier this month, against a brilliant backdrop of oranges and red peppers at a Washington, D.C., community center, first lady Michelle Obama endorsed Walmart's moves to lower the price of fresh fruit and vegetables, slash the sodium and sugar content in its house brand and bring stores to underserved urban areas.
“The largest corporation in America is launching a new initiative that has the potential to transform the marketplace and to help American families put healthier food on their tables,” Ms. Obama said."

Except, as we pointed out, Walmart has been one of the biggest contributors to this country's growing obesity epidemic-as a North Carolina research study highlighted: "Here’s what researcher Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had to say on the findings:
“I think the most obvious story is that Walmart lowers the price of foods and a lot of the foods it has big price advantages on are the processed, inner-aisle types of food that aren’t that good for you.”
Women, low-income families and people living in less densely populated areas are those most at risk of weight gain after a Walmart Supercenter moves into the neighborhood..."

Oh, so now it wants the folks to eat healthy-quite a convenient and self serving turnabout from the Walmonster. And shame on FLOTUS for colluding with this corporate crony.

Later in the Crains piece we get to the underlying rationale to the Walmart money blitz-they have their sights set on the Gateway Estates site in East New York: "The only spot Walmart is known to be considering is the 630,000-square-foot Gateway II shopping center off Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, a project the council approved in 2008. The site is owned by The Related Cos. and would give Walmart plenty of room to build its preferred 120,000-square-foot supercenter."

Well, it's actually 180,000 sq. but what's an additional Pathmark sized footprint when you are planning to flood East New York neighborhoods and the Belt Parkway-in a tribute to Mike Bloomberg's carbon footprint reducing charade-with 30,000 or more additional cars and trucks every week. But Crain's does let the cat out of the bag.

The goal here is really multiple super-sized super centers that will denude neighborhood shopping strips and choke the city's road ways with tens of thousands of additional vehicular trips that will require NYC tax payers to spend hundreds of millions of capital budget dollars that it doesn't have for infrastructure that will barely mitigate the extra trucks and autos multiple Walmonsters will generate.

All of which gets us to the Walmart multi-million dollar misdirection-a campaign launched by the venal Brad Tusk and the equally avaricious Doug Schoen. Walmart has its site on East NY, and perhaps a number of other permit restricted sites in the city. What the company will find out, however, is that its air war will not be effective-and when the Walmart Free Coalition gets its troops on the ground for any particular site fight it will be-unlike the faux inevitability that the gullible media toadies would like us to believe-simply, game over!

So, our advice to the press is, try to focus on the real Walmart objective here, and don't get caught up in the company's three card monte game. If it does, than Lisberg's observation might become both quaint and moot: "So Walmart sees no downside in ignoring the Council and its traditional allies. If Walmart wins this battle, they'll have proved the strategy works."

Ah, stay tuned for sure.