It's an unusually warm day for March in the Inland Northwest, but that's not the reason for the crowds. People teem around me --mothers with strollers, teenage couples, elderly people carrying cloth shopping bags. I'm standing outside the sliding doors of the Wal-Mart on Wellesley Avenue in the middle of a weekday afternoon. It's packed. Metal shopping carts clash together as several young employees herd them in from the parking lot; a steady stream of cars -- trucks, Mercedes sedans, minivans and Subarus alike -- come and go, come and go. There is never a lull.
Aware that a reporter is not particularly welcome at Wal-Mart sans an appointment with a Wal-Mart spokesperson, I tentatively case the perimeter. When I approach people who are leaving the store with their plastic shopping bags, I ask why they shop at Wal-Mart. I get the typical responses: "one-stop shopping," "cheap prices," "good selection" and "convenience." Also, however, I receive tentative answers about the company itself. Standing with their trunks open and full of Wal-Mart groceries, people say they don't like that the store runs local shops out of business. They've heard that Wal-Mart employees don't make fair wages; they wish the store wasn't so crowded and chaotic, what with its shelves chock-full of everything, its multitude of indoor departments. One-stop shopping, apparently, is as hectic an experience as it is convenient.
Standing next to the enormous building, its shadow yawning across some of their cars, people summed up what the Wal-Mart wars are all about: They might be hesitant about the company, but they'll shop at the store. That final part is what gives the Walton family (of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton) five of the top 10 slots among richest people in America; it's what gives the company annual sales of more than $265 billion, making it the biggest retailer in the country. Measured by sales volume, in fact, it's the biggest company on the planet.
Indeed, people shop at Wal-Mart despite the company's continuous legal battles (the company has paid hundreds of millions in settlements after forcing workers to clock out before they had finished working and for hiring illegal immigrants). They keep shopping at Wal-Mart despite its engagement in off-shore manufacturing and its devotion to wiping out competition through "predatory pricing" (diverting shoppers from local competitors by offering merchandise in selected product areas below cost, knowing that it can maintain a price war longer than small companies can).
And all that is what gets Chris Lempke, a member of the Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development (PARD) so wound up.
"They're ass----s," he says. "The standard they're setting is if you don't compete in the same way Wal-Mart does, you'll go out of business."
Lempke -- no surprise -- isn't a Wal-Mart shopper. After the company announced plans to open a supercenter in downtown Pullman, he, along with other community activists who are concerned about the impact on small business, set out to make sure other Pullman community members don't become Wal-Mart shoppers. "Our petition says one thing: 'I hereby promise not to work for or shop at Wal-Mart if it is built in Pullman,'" Lempke says. "We have well over 5,000 signatures."
PARD's petition against Wal-Mart is just one way the organization is standing up to the company. The group issued a report detailing the many ways Wal-Mart will be bad for Pullman, including traffic congestion that a parking lot filled with 1,039 spaces would bring. Another problem, say opponents to the Pullman supercenter, is that the area already has a Wal-Mart just eight miles away in Moscow, Idaho. (A supercenter includes groceries; standard Wal-Marts do not.)
Lempke says his research shows that it's very common for the company to open two stores right next to each other, even if the area isn't heavily populated. Eventually, he's sure, the Moscow store will close. Wal-Mart's spokespeople have denied that assertion, but Lempke points out that what the company says now is not reassuring.
"If you go back to them in three years after they close the [Moscow] store and say, 'You said it would stay open,' they'll say, 'That wasn't a legally binding statement.' They just have no ethical standard whatsoever." In fact, despite Wal-Mart's claims that its Moscow store would continue to operate at the same capacity that it currently does, the Moscow City Council has decided to address the issue of allowing any future big-box stores into their town.
Hoping to keep the retail giant out of their town the way citizens have in Gig Harbor, Wash., Port Townsend, Wash., and Hayden, Idaho, PARD is pushing the Pullman City Council for a public meeting. The city, however, is dragging its feet when it comes to taking sides.
"We're in the position of not having an official position," says Pete Dickinson, Pullman's planning director. "We haven't completed our review [of Wal-Mart's proposal]. If we find that this proposed Wal-Mart supercenter complies with all our rules and regulations, we will be obligated to issue approvals to the proposal."
But after Wal-Mart submitted a site plan drawing, an environmental checklist, a traffic impact analysis and an environmental site analysis, and after the city reviewed each of these reports and had independent experts review them, they sent the traffic impact analysis and the environmental analysis back to the retail giant with more questions.
"That was more than two months ago, and Wal-Mart hasn't responded," Dickinson says. So the city waits. In the meantime, it has refused PARD's request for a public meeting.
"When a commercial use is proposed for a commercially zoned [site], there is no requirement for a public hearing," Dickinson says. "The code says it's a discretionary call."
Until the Director of Public Works decides whether or not to defer his decision on Wal-Mart to the Board of Adjustment (which would then require a public hearing), the city doesn't have to meet with its citizens about the proposed supercenter. PARD disagrees and has hired a lawyer who sent a brief to the city, claiming the Pullman City Council can hold a public meeting even though the decision-making lies with the city managers. PARD, too, claims that the city isn't being protectionist enough when it comes to what Wal-Mart might mean for Pullman.
"We believe the city has taken a narrow interpretation of their own codes in regard to the fiscal impact of Wal-Mart," says T.V. Reed, PARD's chairman. While some anti-Wal-Mart activists claim the city of Pullman is star-struck over the prospect of all that sales tax revenue from a Wal-Mart supercenter, Dickinson insists the city is simply playing it safe. "We wrestle with the issues we are required to wrestle with under the city code," he says. "Something we're required to review is the fiscal impact, [but] as the city defines it -- it's impact on the city's revenue, not necessarily other [business owners]."
Dickinson says the city could only rightfully refuse Wal-Mart "if there is evidence that the supercenter will drive out other businesses to the point that it would affect the revenues and expenditures for the municipality." That's unlikely, considering whatever money the city loses from businesses closing their doors can be made up easily by Wal-Mart's booming sales.
The message from the city of Pullman to its private business owners, it seems, is "You're on your own."
Wal-Mart is accustomed to fighting its way into markets. With around 5,300 stores nationwide, including Sam's Clubs and Neighborhood Markets -- an average of more than 100 stores per state -- the company's m.o. is expansion, expansion, expansion. The South, East and Midwest are thoroughly saturated, and right now, the West is being won by Wal-Mart. Washington state has about 40 of these stores, 13 of which are supercenters; Idaho has about 15 Wal-Marts, 13 of which are supercenters. As of last fall, the company's employees in Washington numbered 14,676. According to the company, Wal-Mart paid $10.5 million in state and local taxes last year, accounting for more than $151 million in state sales tax.
While its opponents point out its reputation for hiring illegal workers, paying associates poorly and hurting communities by putting small business owners out of work, Wal-Mart -- behemoth that it is -- gives a lot, too. Last year, according to the company, it contributed more than $1.5 million to local causes in Washington and raised nearly $600,000 for those causes, including literacy grants, Safe Neighborhood Heroes Grants and Teacher of the Year grants. (The Washington Education Association's charity, the Children's Fund, however, is boycotting Wal-Mart because of its "exploitative labor practices.") Wal-Mart has an extensive Web site set up defending its business practices and employee policies, and though a spokesperson from Wal-Mart didn't get back to The Inlander by our deadline, the company has its standard answers, whether given by a live person or a Web writer. Those don't change.
For Chris Lempke and members of PARD, the issue of Wal-Mart is black and white; it's clear, however, that not everyone agrees. Standing in the store's massive parking lot on Wellesley, Missy Herron explains that Wal-Mart is a way of life. "I love it. This is my second time here today," she says. Herron is also a Wal-Mart employee. Being a military wife, she says she's worked at Wal-Marts in Maryland, California and now Washington. Herron is moving to Arizona soon and plans to work for the company there, too. Opponents of Wal-Mart, she says, claim that "women can't get ahead, but in the store I worked at in Maryland, three-quarters of the management were women. I've got three kids, and I've got to make [money] go as far as I can."
Wal-Mart's unprecedented success is not just about its aggressive push for monopoly; it's also about the fact that for many people, if not most of them, short-term rewards tend to win out over long-term thinking. T.V. Reed, with PARD, says it takes about three years before the full extent of Wal-Mart's presence is felt among local businesses. So while PARD fights a Wal-Mart supercenter in Pullman and, by Reed's estimation, about 250 other municipalities work to fend off the world's largest retailer, car after car continues to turn into the parking lot. There's never a lull.
To learn more about the resistance to a Wal-Mart supercenter in Pullman, visit