By Donella Meadows
–June 10, 1993–
The company didn’t even identify itself in its first negotiations with city officials. For months we only knew that a “giant retail project” might come to our already overbuilt, traffic-jammed, edge-of-town commercial strip.
Despite the company’s coyness, we guessed it was Wal-Mart, which is spreading out of the South like kudzu vine. In just 10 years Wal-Mart has overtaken Sears and KMart as the nation’s largest discount retailer, with annual sales of $44 billion and about 150 new stores a year. We have watched Wal-Marts creep toward us up the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River, luring Vermont customers without having to face Vermont’s tough land-use laws.
When we finally found out it was indeed Wal-Mart knocking at our door, chills went down the backs of businesses and citizens.
Because, for one thing, Wal-Mart kills off local competitors. In Iowa the average Wal-Mart grosses $13 million a year and increases total area sales by $4 million — which means it takes $9 million worth of business from existing stores. Within three or four years of a Wal-Mart’s arrival, retail sales within a 20-mile radius go down by 25 percent; 20 to 50 miles away sales go down by 10 percent.
A Massachusetts study says a typical Wal-Mart adds 140 jobs and destroys 230 higher-paying jobs. One reason Wal-Mart is price-competitive is that it keeps labor costs to a minimum. Aside from a few managers, who usually come in from outside, it uses people mainly to stack merchandise, ring up sales, and wash floors. More than half of them work part-time and receive no benefits.
According to studies from places where Wal-Marts have arrived, here are some other effects. Despite public investments in restoring the downtown business district, vacancies there increase. Rents drop, and the enterprises that remain pay lower wages and taxes. Competing chain stores in existing malls leave and are not replaced. While downtown dies off, strip development in non-competing business booms around the Wal-Mart. Traffic there increases much more than predicted on the basis of the Wal-Mart alone.
Fewer merchandising profits circulate within the community. Wal-Mart profits go to Arkansas. Wal-Mart handles most of its insurance, legal services, and banking at its headquarters too.
That’s why businesses are unenthusiastic about the arrival of a Wal-Mart. My neighbors are upset for reasons that are more personal and profound. They are worried about ugliness, hassle, noise, traffic, and growth. About the decline of neighborliness. About local control. About purposes of community beyond the making and spending of money. And about the fact that institutional bigness means, despite Sam Walton’s down-home appeal, human heartlessness. Sam Walton is dead. Wal-Mart is no longer one man’s dream and accomplishment; it’s a $44 billion gorilla that knows how to handle local officials, starting with not revealing its name.
There are consultants who go around lecturing to panicked merchants, telling them how to survive After Wal-Mart. I can save everyone a lot of money by revealing the essence of their message: sell what Wal-Mart doesn’t. Citizens are looking for advice not about how to survive after Wal-Mart, but how to keep it from coming, or at least how to be sure it comes on the community’s terms, and not at the community’s expense.
This behemoth on our doorstep, threatening to slurp up in one swallow most of the growth potential of our community, to tilt business and traffic heavily in its direction, and to laugh all the way to the Arkansas bank, has exposed our vulnerability. There are no laws against institutional heartlessness. Out-competing other businesses is the American way of life. Around here we have given away much of the control we could have. We never passed land-use laws like Vermont’s. The area Wal-Mart wants to occupy is already zoned commercial and already a mess. Our impact fees are a joke. We have talked about a traffic plan for years, but only talked.
So what can we do?
We can lean hard on the traffic problem. Let’s see — assuming a Wal-Mart-induced commuting delay of fifteen minutes a day, 250 days a year, and billing at $20 an hour, that comes to $1250 per commuter per year. For doctors and lawyers who can charge $200 an hour, it’s $12,500 per year. We’ll take it in the form of personal checks, thanks, with a surcharge for air pollution, pain, suffering, and ugliness. Either that or we need serious engineering and road-building before the big store comes in. The big store, which will cause and benefit from the traffic, should pay for the road-building, from studies through construction.
Maybe the best weapon citizens have is Sam Walton’s own statement: “If some community, for whatever reason, doesn’t want us in there, we aren’t interested in going in and creating a fuss.” People who think a Wal-Mart or any other development will degrade their community shouldn’t just grouse to themselves. They should get together, attend planning meetings, speak up, write letters, sound off. It can make a difference.
It would make even more of a difference to realize that any kind of growth, for any kind of profit, is not necessarily good. What grows, where, and how fast, should be decided democratically in an open, foresighted process of regional planning — not in quiet meetings in just one of the impacted towns, with the name of the growth agent kept secret.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993