Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Business Groups Conflicted on Walmart

Crain's is reporting that the city's various chambers of commerce are divided over the Walmart question: "The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce will not take a stance on Walmart's potential entry into the city after a poll revealed a split between members favoring the nation's largest retailer and those opposing it.The Chamber asked members—most of them small-business owners—one question: Are you in favor of Walmart opening a store in New York City? Among the more than 300 respondents, 53% favored the retailer coming to town, and 47% opposed its arrival."

Now the Manhattan group represents a range of businesses-both large and small-and its internal survey undermines the credibility of the Walmart sponsored poll that found widespread small business support for the retail giant. But the Manhattan Chamber wasn't alone: "The issue of Walmart puts the city's chambers of commerce in a tough spot. They typically take pro-business stances, and Walmart recently joined all five boroughs' chambers of commerce. But because of the company's perceived impact on small retailers, which comprise a vocal portion of their membership, it's tough for the groups to speak out on the issue. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn got a loud ovation last year at a Crain's small business forum when she spoke forcefully against Walmart coming to town."

Of course, all  of this remains theoretical without a clear understanding of specific sites-location being the sine qua non of opposition to any large retail development. But, as Crain's points out, the Walmart move into Chicago and NYC may be borne of desperation: "The attempt to keep Walmart out of the city comes at a time when the retailer needs to expand into New York and other urban areas. Fourth-quarter sales at U.S. stores open at least a year were down 1.8%, company executives reported Tuesday, worse than they expected. Overall domestic sales fell in the fourth quarter by 0.5% to $71.1 billion. Shares in Walmart were down nearly 4% in afternoon trading."

But location only counts when it triggers a land use review and gives the council oversight-leaving the city vulnerable to scores of as-of-right locations. That's why there is an effort to craft legislation that would raise the barrier to entry for the Walmonster: "Also this week, Walmart opponents are continuing with efforts to craft legislation in the City Council that would make it difficult for the company to open stores in the city. Any legislation would have to be approved by Ms. Quinn before gaining traction. Because of the powerful role of pro-Walmart Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the zoning process, the legislation would likely focus on labor practices, wages or working conditions, according to Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the retail workers union. It would not necessarily be specific to Walmart."

This is, however, all speculative since there are scores of legislative suggestions and initiatives being entertained. What this indicates is that there is growing and intense opposition to Walmart's efforts to rescue its bottom line by flooding this city with Big and Little Wallies-and they have not seen the half of it yet.