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“The loser when we are kept from operating is the consumer,” Kanelos says. “When we opened stores in Las Vegas, grocery prices dropped an average of 20 percent. Is that what the city wants to keep from its grocery consumers?”
Across the city, at Porter Ranch in the northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley, no groceries are sold at the Wal-Mart, which shares space in the “town center”–type shopping mall with a huge Ralphs. Porter Ranch was exempted from the 1986 slow-growth law and Wal-Mart needed no special permits or variances to open here. This Wal-Mart stocks business wear and other items geared toward the upscale shoppers who drive over from gated communities with mock Mediterranean names like “Sorrento Pointe.” But it’s not just the Wal-Mart that has adapted. So has the Ralphs. It competes with its next-door neighbor by stocking lawn furniture and electronics. So far, the two stores appear to be coexisting peacefully.
It’s yet to be seen what will happen when the newest L.A. Wal-Mart opens in West Hills. There, at the mall that once was called Fallbrook Square, Wal-Mart is joining a Target, a Kohl’s, a Mervyn’s, and a host of other big-box retailers. This is a “power center,” a style of shopping center that analysts say is past its peak. But it was Wal-Mart’s chance to move into a lucrative new market.
In Harbor Gateway, another Wal-Mart is going in on the site of an old Auto Nation. The area is represented by Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who once co-managed the Baldwin Hills–Crenshaw Mall, and Hahn says she got a commitment in writing that there would be no guns — or groceries — sold at the store.
“I couldn’t stop them from coming in,” Hahn says. “Wal-Mart is extremely popular. As it stands now I think it’s a good balance. Grocery stores have good union jobs and pay a living wage, but people like Wal-Mart. They shop there because it’s cheaper.”
Alma — the woman who left her cart in my care as she took her daughter to the restroom — tells me on her return that she seldom gets food at the Wal-Mart at the Panorama Mall. She drives here a couple times a week from nearby Arleta just to pick up a few things. In her cart today are several spiral-bound notebooks and a Kim Possible lunchbox for her second-grader, Angela.
“But for food we go to El Super,” she says, referring to a Latino-oriented supermarket several blocks away that carries fruits and vegetables you can’t find in most chain stores.
At the other end of the Panorama mall sits La Curacao, an appliance and furniture store created by two brothers, who hail not from the Caribbean or Venezuela, but Israel, to cater to Los Angeles’ enormous Latino market. The store is decorated with ersatz Mayan sculpture and features mariachi performers and flags of all the Latin American nations. La Curacao’s decision to locate here when business was dying and gang shootings were common on nearby Blythe Street marked the beginning of a turnaround for this area. Van Nuys Boulevard still has empty storefronts, plasma donation centers and plenty of seedy bars left over from the era of despair in the 1990s. But it is also sprouting family restaurants and markets like El Super. Wal-Mart’s arrival in 1998 was not greeted with dread, unlike in countless small towns where Main Street merchants and civic leaders mobilize to keep the big-boxes out. Van Nuys Boulevard had already been picked clean, and Wal-Mart helped to bring it back.
Alma and little Angela abruptly cut the pleasantries short when they spot what they think is a faster line a few aisles down. They dart off, so I pass the time looking over the contents of everyone else’s cart. One man, maybe 50, slinging a business blazer over his shoulder, has nothing but two bottles of soda. A young couple and three beaming kids guard a huge box — probably a TV set — and a smaller one, which contains a hair dryer. A rather hefty girl, maybe 17, wearing a ponytail, low-rise jeans, a cropped T-shirt and a glittering navel ring on an imposing belly, has in her cart nothing but one lonely pair of socks. Behind me, for what seems like hours, TV monitors blast away about how I can change my eye color with help from the optometry department.
I am curious as to how many of them will have carts full of milk and packaged meats once the cold case is fixed, and whether the strike against Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons still will be on. LAANE and Garcetti may succeed in their efforts to bar Supercenters in L.A., but if they wanted to block Wal-Mart’s influence on wages and benefits for grocery workers, the strike suggests they already have lost.
And now, an eternity later, I am at the checkout stand, where the employee wears a red vest with the words “How may I help you?” on the back. She rings up my goods, takes my cash, hands me the change along with my stuff in a blue plastic bag bearing a yellow smiley face, and offers words we can expect to be hearing a lot more in Los Angeles.
“Thank you!” she says. “Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart!”