Local officials are smitten with America’s retail colossus. Unfortunately, the love affair is one-sided.
Hardly a week goes by without an announcement that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is about to bless Rock Hill with its benevolence. First there was the opening of Sam’s Club, the retail warehouse-style store that opened recently near the Galleria, a stone’s throw from the city’s first Walmart Supercenter. Next came word that the Benton, Ark.-based retail behemoth would build its third supercenter on the south end of town.
When that store opens, the nation’s largest retailer will have boxed-in our fair city. There’s already a Walmart Supercenter on the western edge of Rock Hill, another a dozen miles away on the eastern side of York and still another a few miles farther north, in Tega Cay.
And if the thought depresses you that Rock Hillians might have to drive more than five minutes for their Walmart fix, hope is on the horizon. The company has announced that it will build no fewer than three “neighborhood” stores in our fair city.
These outlets will be about 41,000 square feet and sell grocery and other items offered by supermarkets, pharmacies and other Walmart competitors.
According to a recent news account, Walmart intends to link these smaller stores with supercenters, which will serve as their mini-warehouses. The strategy is intended to help the mother company compete with Amazon and other online retailers jockeying for advantage in an increasingly tough market.
Every time a new Walmart pops up, city leaders become ecstatic about the jobs the store will bring or salivate over anticipated property taxes. So what’s not to like?
For one, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project, “Big Business, Corporate Profits, and the Minimum Wage,” Walmart led a list of 10 U.S. firms that employ the highest number of low-wage workers.
With a U.S. workforce of 1.4 million employees, working in nearly 5,000 stores, Walmart typically pays sales associates less than $9 an hour, the report said. Many of those hourly workers are part-timers with few benefits, subject to being called in or sent home on short notice.
The company has annual revenues of nearly a half-trillion dollars a year and net income of $17 billion, but many of its employees belong to the working poor – Americans who work hard but must depend on food stamps and other public assistance programs to make ends meet. Mega-chains like Walmart justify exploitation of employees by claiming they keep retail costs down, making life better for all Americans.
Ironically, while it’s true that we pay little for many items – especially clothes produced in Third World sweatshops – many experts think the economy would be stronger if stores paid employees higher salaries so they could afford to buy the merchandise they sell.
It would be a bad enough if Walmart were unique in this regard, but other familiar names appearing on the list of the top ten low-wage employers include McDonald’s, Sears, Target, Starbucks and Kroger – the last having recently agreed to buy the Harris-Teeter supermarket chain.
Harder to tally than the effect of low pay and skimpy benefits is the damage these corporate giants inflict on the civic life of a community.
There was a time not so long ago when owners and managers of local businesses were the lifeblood of a community. They led the United Way drive, cooked catfish to put a new roof on the volunteer fire department, and collected signatures for a bond referendum on new schools. Independent retail and service providers have largely been replaced by big-box stores and other nationally owned or franchised companies. The people who run their local operations often are overworked themselves.
The home office may recognize managers for making a sales quota but is less likely to reward them for serving on the local YMCA board.
No one should expect elected officials to man the barricades against giant retailers. That war was lost long ago. Nevertheless, plenty of locally owned businesses continue to exist. Most offer good service at fair prices. Support them when you can.
Don’t worry; Walmart will survive.
Email former Herald Editor Terry Plumb at firstname.lastname@example.org.