Adaptations to Walmart leaving communities

Joel Kotkin considers the fate of smaller communities where Walmart has decided to close stores:

None of this suggests that the retreat of big boxes from smaller towns and some urban areas will be painless. Yet those who see this trend as the harbinger of the end of malls or Main Streets may be in for a surprise. Rather than die off, bricks-and-mortar shopping will change, adding new elements and moving from ever greater uniformity to more variety and differentiation, which are critical to independent business’s survival. Much of this change will take place in small towns, but also in suburban areas, which have long been the happy hunting ground of big boxes.

Why not in the big cities? One of the chief ironies of our times is that chains and their attendant sameness now define much of our most sophisticated urban core—Starbucks on every corner, global brands and restaurants serving the same trendy cuisine. The recovery of large cities, suggests New York researcher Sharon Zukin, has also made them more alike by “bringing in the same development ideas—and the same conspicuous textual allusions and iconic corporate logos inevitably affixed to downtown architectural trophies—to cities across the globe.” Efforts to make the city “safer and less strange to outsiders’ eyes”—tourists, expatriates, media producers, and affluent consumers—are making one global city barely indistinguishable from another…

Some small towns—and suburbs even more so—will be transformed by immigrants and millennials, who may want to set up their own unique shops along the very Main Streets once targeted by firms like Walmart. In wealthier communities, this may mean more boutiques and high-end restaurants. But among less affluent areas, other institutions, such as cooperatives—300 already nationwide and another 250 on the way, as well as farmers markets—could provide some of the products that many once found at Walmart…

As the retail world become more digitally focused, and less big-box-dominated, there is a golden opportunity to restore the geographic and local diversity that has seemed doomed for nearly a half-century, but now may enjoy a new burst of life.

There is little doubt that the retail industry will continue to change. Walmart and other large corporations may seem inevitable today but they didn’t exist decades ago and may not have much presence in the future. Yet, Kotkin seems pretty optimistic about online retail which requires its own set of adjustments as well as infrastructure that could be threatened in the future.

For small towns and many suburbs, do these future changes leave much space for residents themselves to create and experience local differences? On one hand, online retail offers customization yet relies on large companies located elsewhere and on the other hand, local diversity in things like restaurants and small stores draws upon local entrepreneurs. Is the secret to promote an experienced based consumption – local culture and food – as opposed to decades of goods based consumption?

Thanksgiving and Black Friday expose class differences

What people do on Thanksgiving and the day after is indicative of their class status:

But Black Friday is also, as pseudo-holidays go, more class-conscious than most. It is thus more divisive than most. If you can’t normally afford a flat-screen/iPad/Vitamix/Elsa doll/telephone, Black Friday discounts could offer you the opportunity to purchase those items. If you can normally afford those things, though, you may well decide that the trip to the mall, with its “throngs” and its “masses” and its sweaty inconvenience, isn’t worth the trouble.

Which is another way of saying what a headline last week, from the Los Angeles Times, summed up well: “Black Friday highlights the contrast between rich and poor.” As a spectacle, it may be celebrated by all, but it is participated in, increasingly, by a few. Black Friday stands, both temporally and culturally, in stark contrast to Thanksgiving, which is not a Hallmark holiday so much as a Williams-Sonoma one, and which involves, at its extremes, people who can afford heritage turkeys/disposable centerpieces/vessels designed solely to pour gravy congratulating themselves on how wonderfully non-commercial the whole thing is. With stomachs full of bird and broccolini and bourbon-ginger-apple pie, they settle in to watch the news stories that come out of Black Friday—the stampedes, the stabbings—and gawk in amusement and amazement. “All that for a flat screen,” they say, drinking their wine and clucking their tongues.

Perhaps this helps explain something I saw in a number of news stories about shoppers going out to line up for Thanksgiving evening store openings. A number of those interviewed suggested they didn’t like the idea of having to leave home to shop (some foregoing their family meals) or having retail workers put in holiday hours. Yet, they felt compelled to shop because the deals were too good to pass up.

This all sounds like Bourdieu’s lifestyle differences through class distinctions. How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? It should be little surprise that food and entertainment choices that day are guided by class-influenced tastes. When do you shop and how do you do it? It is all likely (from brands to time you have to spend on it) influenced by class.

I remember one professor of mine suggesting to the class that they needed to go to Walmart to find real (implied: average) Americans. At least one student seemed aghast. Perhaps the peak of that would be to go to Walmart on Thanksgiving and Black Friday…

Imagining tacky uses for buildings designed by starchitects

What if buildings designed by noted architects were turned into Walmarts or casinos or gas stations? Check out the images here.

While the proposed changes are unique, I’m more interested in what counts for potentially ruining these buildings. Walmart is a good store to pick as it stands for mass consumerism, big box designs, suburbs, and cheap goods. Imagine it another way: would any renowned architect agree to design a Walmart? Gas stations are a common part of the landscape but are rarely known for any great design as they hope to fit in as many cars as possible as quickly as possible. Casinos might be glitzy but they can have a seedy image, no matter how much glass and how many shiny objects are used. I’m a little surprised we don’t see more brands in these designs, perhaps a McDonald’s or a Home Depot or some other mass market company, as this would highlight the differences between well-known brands and their common lack of much architectural style.

Another thought: are there any big brands right now that are known for good or notable architecture? I’m not talking just about interior features but rather a company-wide ethos that would define numerous locations.

Those who live in Walmart parking lots

Walmart has thousands of U.S. locations and there are people who live in some of these parking lots:

The company’s policy of allowing overnight stays in their parking lots is intended to boost sales, but has the tangential effect of creating a subculture around its locations (though they’re still at the mercy of local laws).

The two separate Walmart parking lots in Flagstaff, Arizona are specifically known for their long-term residents, and this past summer photographer Nolan Conway spent several days making a series of portraits of both the overnighters and the people who call these asphalt grids a temporary home…

Sometimes managers will say no to campers because space is limited. Conway says he’s unsure what the exact rules were for the Flagstaff Walmart parking lots but there were stories of the police coming and telling all the long-term campers to leave.

Conway says he first tried to make the Walmart portraits in another city during the winter but was routinely turned down. In Flagstaff people seemed more amenable, partly because it was summer and they were outside and more approachable, but also because these parking lots had so many long-term residents that they developed relationships and interacted on a regular basis. Their dogs would play together and residents shared meals and holidays.

Why should we be surprised – lots of other things happen at Walmart. It would also be interesting to hear: (1) what Walmart officially says about people living in the parking lots; (2) whether this actually does help boost sales; (3) is there anything terribly wrong if people live in parking lots that are often criticized for being wasted space much of the day?

Should new “Buy American” pushes be lauded if they occur because goods are now cheaper to make in the US?

Walmart is purchasing and selling more goods made in America – primarily because making some things in America is now cheaper:

In many cases, Wal-Mart’s suppliers had already decided to produce in the United States, as rising wages in China and other emerging economies, along with increased labor productivity and flexibility back home, eroded the allure of offshore production.

Though wrapped in the stars and stripes, the world’s largest retailer’s push to bring jobs back to the United States also makes business sense both for suppliers and retailers.

Some manufacturers are finding they can profitably produce certain goods at home that they once made offshore. And retailers like Wal-Mart benefit from being able to buy those goods closer to distribution centers and stores with lower shipping costs, while gaining goodwill by selling more U.S.-made products.

“This is not a public relations effort. This is an economic, financial, mathematical-driven effort. The economics are substantially different than they were in the 80s and 90s,” Bill Simon, chief executive of the Walmart U.S. chain, told the Reuters Global Consumer and Retail Summit earlier this month.

To restate, this isn’t because of some commitment to the United States or patriotism or creating American jobs. This is because the goods can be made more cheaply in the US due low-wage workers in other countries now earning more and rising transportation costs. Thus, if items could once again be made and shipped more cheaply overseas, businesses would likely chase that again. Granted, profits of American companies might be good (shareholders, for example, might be happy) but is this the only way to assess manufacturing and sales decisions? Is selling products partly on the fact that they are made in America then somewhat deceptive?

When you build a Walmart in Chicago, you better make sure public transit goes there

A new Walmart under construction on Chicago’s South Side has a problem: public transit doesn’t make it all the way to the store.

CTA bus routes No. 106 East 103rd and No. 111 111th/King Drive currently stop at Cottage Grove Avenue, which is several blocks from the store that is part of a $135 million development.

Beale said he is outraged and he threatened to convene public hearings on the CTA bus routes if the situation is not rectified by the time the Wal-Mart opens this week.

The alderman said the retail developer built the site to accommodate buses with a bus turnaround and nearby sidewalks for commuters. He said CTA officials told him it would cost $680,000 a year to extend the two bus routes to the Wal-Mart. But Beale said the costs would be offset by the additional riders making trips to the store.

CTA officials, acknowledging that they signed the 2011 contract Beale described, said late Monday afternoon that the transit agency is working with the developer and Beale and will implement service “as soon as possible.”

It sounds like the CTA is behind on this one. At the same time, this provides an interesting contrast to the typical suburban or exurban Walmart which relies on a large parking lot full of drivers. Big box stores are still relatively rare in denser big cities, even as companies like Walmart and Target (their first Manhattan location opened three years ago) are looking to expand. Thus far, the Walmarts in Chicago are more on the edges of the city, lending themselves to driving.

It would be interesting to hear how the companies themselves, local residents, and the city describe how the big box experience changes in an urban area. This would be ripe for participant observation as the store opens and both changes and is influenced by the surrounding urban neighborhood.

Painting the church of Walmart

Lots of “normal” activities take place at Walmart so why not spiritual matters as well? Artist Brenden O’Connell has taken up the subject:

For the past decade, O’Connell has been snapping photographs inside dozens of Wal-Marts. The images have served as inspiration for an ongoing series of paintings of everyday life — much of which involves shopping, which O’Connell calls “that great contemporary pastime.”

“Wal-Mart was an obvious place” to look for inspiration, he tells The Salt. “It’s sort of the house that holds all American brands.”…

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

In conversation, O’Connell comes across as thoughtful and urbane. He’s well aware that, as a company, Wal-Mart can be polarizing. But “regardless of your feelings about it,” he told me back then, “it just is. It’s like an irrevocable reality that’s part of our experience.”

On the occasions that we go to church and then Walmart afterward, I have joked that we are visiting America’s two kinds of churches. This may not be too far from reality considering the number of shoppers at Walmart, its yearly sales, and the power of its brand. But, it is really that surprising that a retail store could be the contemporary version of a spiritual space when our country is so devoted to consumption and shopping?

Walmart opens stores on college campuses

Walmarts are everywhere in the United States – but only recently have they opened on college campuses.

In January 2011, Walmart opened its first location on a university campus at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a half-hour drive from its corporate headquarters. Now, Walmart has announced that it will be opening a second campus location, at Arizona State University, with luck by May, according to Delia Garcia, a Walmart spokeswoman. A third location, at Georgia Tech, is slated to open at a to-be-determined time next year. “Walmart on campus is an opportunity to bring low prices to students, reach new customers and serve our on-campus customers in a convenient way,” Garcia said in an interview.

Garcia said that the products sold by the university stores would be “tailored to the on-campus customer, providing general merchandise, convenience items [and] pharmacy services,” as well as the store’s $4 generic prescription drug program. Garcia emphasized that the company was still “testing this format,” and as such there are no concrete plans beyond the Georgia Tech location. While the Arkansas location is 2,500 square feet, the Arizona location as planned will be 5,000 square feet. The ASU location will also offer financial and bill-paying services, and will employ 10 associates…

As has often been the case with Walmart, the expansion is not free of controversy. In an e-mailed statement, the labor group Making Change at Walmart criticized the company for paying what it says are insufficient wages, “while public institutions like ASU have faced painful budget cuts.”…

In addition, according to a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, the University of Arkansas (via the university’s Applied Sustainability Center) and Arizona State (via the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability) are “the two universities Walmart picked to create its ‘Sustainability Index,’ which has been criticized for lacking meaningful standards and appears to have had little to no effect on suppliers’ product manufacturing processes.” Rob Walton, Walmart founder Sam Walton’s eldest son and current company chairman, is also co-chair of the Board of Directors for Sustainability at Arizona State.

So what is the deal behind the scenes between the colleges and Walmart? The colleges would want Walmart on campus because it can bring in money. Walmart wants to be close to a base of customers who want cheap goods.

How does this change life on campus? It could make it easier for students to remain on or around campus if they can buy things nearby. However, it could also change local town life.

Do the Walmarts have to follow the architectural rules or styles of the campuses to fit in? It would be kind of amusing to have a typical big box Walmart near traditional college buildings dignified in their brick and ivy.

Argument: if you want a Walmart, you have to accept the McMansions and other things that come with it

Henry Briggs argues that the phenomena of Walmart is related to other phenomena like McMansions:

In any event, the idea of paying less and less and buying more and more is a real driver of our economy. As most economists will tell you: unless the US consumer is spending, the US economy tanks.

That is what’s behind the “You deserve it! ” lines in ads, why having a “McMansion” is part of the “American Dream,” and why the American Dream is no longer a dream: “It’s my right, by God!”

That’s why household debt shot up from $734 billion in 1974 to $13.6 trillion in 2009, from 45 percent of GDP in 1974 to 96 percent of GDP in 2009.

We complain about Walmart wrecking communities, even as we go there for the deals, and then we must go there for the deals because Walmart is all we can afford.

If you walk into a house built in the ’50s or ’60s, you’ll find smaller closets, smaller kitchens and smaller garages. This in a time when people were happier, the country was thriving, and the future glowed with promise.

You want things cheaper? There’s a price.

This is a familiar argument about McMansions: they are linked to larger patterns of consumption. But, if the economy really does depend on such spending, can’t buying McMansions, smartphones, and other items and shopping at Walmart be seen as helping American society? Of course, one can choose to buy “better” items than others – instead of a McMansion, perhaps a passive house or a tiny house. Instead of a regular car that contributes to sprawl, perhaps a membership to Zipcar. While some complain about particular kinds of houses, Briggs and others suggest that consumption comes in bundled packages. If this is the case, then McMansions are just the symptoms of a society that consumes and spends too much and likes sprawl.

 

Illustrating problems with big retail in Naperville: push for more landscaping but offer sales tax rebate

The response from the city of Naperville to a proposal for a new Walmart in the suburb illustrates some of the issues communities face when approving big retail stores:

Councilman Grant Wehrli said he would like to see the store follow the lead of nearby Costco and Whole Foods by going “above and beyond” the city’s landscaping requirements.

“I would love to have Walmart come in, but I’m concerned about the landscaping. What I would like to see done there is for Walmart to follow the lead of the other two developments, literally across the two streets, and go above and beyond with the landscaping. It’s relatively inexpensive and the benefit to society is massive,” Wehrli said. “If we go to the higher standard of landscaping, we’re not just going to be like the Walmart in Buffalo Grove. It’s going to take that intersection to a higher level.”…

Wal-Mart representative Aaron Matson called the timing of the request “eleventh-hour,” but said they were doing the best they can to address the concerns…

“If we’re not careful with what we’re asking for, they may decide to say, ‘Hey, let’s move right across the street (to Aurora),” Krause said…

Wal-Mart officials still hope to break ground this year on the store that has also been awarded a $1.75 rebate in sales tax revenues over 10 years.

Here is how I interpret this:

1. The community is concerned with how Walmart looks and how it fits in with the nearby Springbrook Forest Preserve. Naperville has its share of ugly retail stretches, notably Ogden Avenue east of Washington Street and Route 59 south of the Burlington Northern tracks. In order to present a nicer image befitting of a wealthier suburb, Walmart needs to add some landscaping and go beyond typical requirements. I am amused by the comparison to Buffalo Grove. According to the Walmart Store Locator, there is no Walmart in Buffalo Grove though there is one very close by in Wheeling. Regardless, Naperville doesn’t want to have any run of the mill Walmart; they want one that reflects Naperville and helps distinguish it on the higher end from other suburbs.

2. Yet, the city may not be able to push the landscaping requests too far because Walmart could still locate their new store in nearby Aurora. In other words, the city has to offer a sales tax rebate because it cannot pass up this revenue source. Naperville officials may be particularly attuned to this because Naperville has lost retail business to Aurora before. In one notable case, the developer for the Fox Valley Mall played Naperville and Aurora against each other in the early 1970s, Naperville was less willing to budge, and the mall was built just across Route 59 in Aurora.

Overall, the community needs the tax money Walmart generates but they also want the store to be presentable. Such are the tensions today regarding big box stores.