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Lawrence Harmon

Time to take a new look at Wal-Mart

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / August 29, 2011

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MAYOR MENINO’S aversion to Wal-Mart is part of his political DNA. He signed on to the anti-“sprawl-mart’’ movement way back in the 1980s. When Menino recently said of the chain, “They don’t belong in Boston,’’ it came from a deep place.

Still, Menino should take another look. The company has learned to do more than build 125,000-square-foot concrete boxes at highway interchanges. Wal-Mart is modifying its approach to suit urban markets in Washington, Chicago, and elsewhere. Maybe Menino should adjust a little, too.

Since 1998, Wal-Mart has opened about 200 “neighborhood markets,’’ usually in the range of 40,000 square feet. And now the company is introducing “express’’ stores as small as 15,000 square feet, or about the size of an average free-standing chain drugstore. About two-thirds of the space in these new stores is devoted to groceries, and the remainder to clothes and household goods.

“In the past, we were more rigid in our approach,’’ said Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo. The goal now, he said, is to match the store size and merchandise mix to the neighborhood, especially in “underserved or badly served neighborhoods.’’ Wal-Mart even has taken a cue from the New Urbanism movement by proposing to build apartments over a planned store in the nation’s capital.

There is self-interest galore in this strategy. After all, the company couldn’t find a couple of hundred thousand square feet of contiguous space in crowded cities to save its life. So it figured out how to earn handsome returns on investments by building smaller stores with smaller selections in closer proximity to one another. You don’t get to be the world’s largest retailer for nothing.

But there’s a bottom line in Boston’s poorer neighborhoods, too. People in Roxbury and other potential Wal-Mart sites would welcome competition for their shopping dollar. And they wouldn’t sneeze at the average $13 per hour the company pays to its workers in Massachusetts stores. Cities with high costs of living like Boston have even more of a reason to hear out the company. Wal-Mart prices its goods identically across the nation, according to Restivo. But salaries are adjusted according to region.

Wal-Mart is hard at work trying to project an image as a purveyor of fresh, affordable foods with a strong commitment to a healthy environment. That will require a big leap for Menino and others who favor the “Main Street’’ approach of the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which warned for decades about the capacity of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart to undercut and destroy traditional downtown shopping areas.

Menino, who was a district city councilor during the 1980s, caught wind of the trust’s efforts and lobbied the group for one of its earliest Main Street demonstration projects aimed at restoring neighborhood shopping areas with storefront improvements, shade trees, and welcoming public spaces. The effort would transform blighted Roslindale Square into a model neighborhood shopping area. It also helped to transform Menino from a parochial district councilor into a viable mayoral candidate with a vision for a better city.

Menino is right to worry that a Wal-Mart in Boston might draw away from existing local businesses. But that should be a subject for a discussion with company executives, not a reason to slam the door in their faces.

Courting Wal-Mart could also threaten Menino’s relations with organized labor and its supporters. Two years ago, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $40 million to more than 85,000 current and former nonunion employees in Massachusetts as part of an earlier class-action suit. And Massachusetts wasn’t the only state where the company had to pay for denying workers their rest and meal breaks, refusing to pay overtime, and manipulating time cards to lower employees’ pay. It was a shameful period in the company’s history. Presumably, Wal-Mart has learned something from the hit to its pocketbook and reputation.

Menino looks at Wal-Mart and sees nothing but bad history and political aggravation. But many of his constituents see a chance at a job and a place to buy food and clothes without sticker shock. In this case, it’s the Wal-Mart shoppers who are seeing the bigger picture.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.