Updated at the bottom: Wal-Mart calls this “study” nothing more than a “recycled 2011 press release from New York.” More at the bottom.
But Wal-Mart knows what it can and can't do. A company this savvy isn't going to waste time trying to open its doors where city ordinances don't permit. So Wal-Mart has instead found local loopholes…
… that allow it to inhabit deserted big-box buildings and set up smaller, less visually offensive “neighborhood markets.” Whether or not you're a Wal-Mart fan, you have to admire its brutish will to adapt and survive.
We've talked about these sneaky tactics at length with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocacy org that has led the local war against Wal-Mart.
LAANE's argument is that the chain is ruining neighborhood after neighborhood by stealing jobs from smaller businesses and replacing them with low-wage, non-union positions — in effect setting an ugly economic standard in every new community it invades.
The concept is frightening. But until today, we'd only heard rumors of about 15 new Walmart branches coming to SoCal.
LAANE's new predictions are far more devastating.
Researchers at the organization have calculated that “Walmart has plans for more than 210 stores in Los Angeles County.”
How do they figure?
Currently, in suburban and rural America, Wal-Mart consumes just over 20 percent of the grocery market, according to report from the Alliance for a Greater New York. “This means that for every $5 spent on groceries in the US, $1 is spent at Walmart,” it says.
The study authors discovered that as of 2011, “Walmart is spending millions of dollars on advertising, lobbyists and donations to politicians and community groups in its campaign to bring its first store to New York City” — and determined, based on the company's past impetus for expansion, that this indicated an attempt to reach 20-percent saturation in NYC.
Now, the same “Walmartization” is predicted for greater Los Angeles. Frying Pan News reports that…
… Walmart is regrouping. A quick check of the City of Los Angeles Ethics Commission reports shows the company made lobbying expenditures of $532,906 between 2008 and 2012. Most were for “issues related to City of Los Angeles locations” and went to Ek & Ek, a governmental consulting firm whose clients include L.A.'s Central City Association, McDonald's and Home Depot.
It's interesting to note that the report showed that there's largely a gap in Walmart's lobbying payments in L.A. between 2004 (when Walmart was fighting the accountability ordinance that has limited the ability to expand in the L.A. market) and 2006 — when Walmart began making payments to the legal powerhouse Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP for “representation in connection with land use and planning issues.”
Amusingly, Wal-Mart was forced to cut ties with PR firm Mercury Public Affairs this month after a Mercury rep was caught posing as a USC journalist at a Chinatown Walmart protest.
But according to LAANE's predictions, that little wardrobe malfunction will be but a blip in the Waltons' Trojan Horse-sized plans for SoCal.
Update No. 1: Aiha Nguyen, the senior policy director who created the map, tells us that, based on financial figures about the L.A. grocery industry, LAANE is predicting that Walmart will try for 42 supercenters, 64 “neighborhood markets” and 106 “express stores.”
The latter two models are much easier for Wal-Mart to get past the opposition. Because they're more the size of average California supermarkets, “our laws just don't provide much opportunity for public review,” says Nguyen.
She adds that while making the map, she actually wasn't aware of the new Walmart planned for Altadena. And then sure enough, it showed up right on top of her frowny-face sticker.
Another nuance of the map: Nguyen spread the stickers more sparsely in rich cities like Beverly Hills, where 1) residents have more time to research things like this, or come out to protest; and 2) city zoning codes are more likely to include aesthetic regulations.
Chinatown, unfortunately, is more of a free-for-all. Still, organizers are predicting that over 10,000 angry people will show up to the market's proposed site on June 30 for “the largest anti-Walmart demonstration in history.”
Update No. 2: Stephen Restivo, director of community affairs for Walmart, sends us an email this afternoon lamenting that we “put so much stock in that 'study' since it was really just recycled 2011 press release from New York (I guess all these special interest groups share content).”
He notes that both the Village Voice and economic development consulting firm Appleseed were skeptical of ALIGN's NYC report when it first came out. They said it made the huge assumption that achieving a 20-precent market share in a “large, diverse and competitive” city like New York would even be possible for Wal-Mart in the first place.
Adds the Wal-Mart spokesman via email today:
“The fact that any national market share we currently enjoy took five decades to achieve is somehow lost on [the report's authors] and shows the depths to which they will sink to try and manipulate reality.”
All good points. The map, however terrifying, involves a lot of speculation. And clearly, a Walmartscape like that would take years to achieve.
But we do know that Los Angeles County's terrain would be much easier to conquer than New York's. In many ways, it mimics the suburbs of middle America, where Wal-Mart does hold 20 percent of the market: Supermarkets and other retailers are more spread out, and abandoned buildings come a dime a dozen. Add to the equation a completely inept L.A. City Council, and we think Wal-Mart may have just stumbled across the promised land.