Wal-Mart’s had a tough time opening a new superstore at the Northcross Mall in Austin, Texas, but things were much smoother in Austin, Minnesota. On July 16, 2008 Wal-Mart opened up a new 204,000 s.f. supercenter on 18th. Avenue NW. According to Wal-Mart, the new store “builds on the aesthetics of the community.” Three retention ponds, a bus stop, two new stop lights and a bike path are listed as examples of adding to the “aesthetics” of this small community of 24,000 people. Stop lights have never been described as aesthetic before. The city’s Community Development Director said “The Austin community residents are excited and anxious for the grand opening.” At the ribbon cutting, Wal-Mart passed out $19,000 in big, foamboard checks from the Wal-Mart Foundation to the local fire and police departments, the schools, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #1216, the American Legion, Spruce Up Austin, Inc., and the City of Austin Parks & Recreation. Pretty much the standard trinkets to keep the natives happy. The store manager boasted that the new store, which is bigger than 4 football fields (not counting the parking lot) was environmentally friendly and sustainable. For example, part of the cement used in the store’s flooring is made with recycled materials from coal-fired electrical generation and steel manufacturing. This reduces the amount of limestone that is needed and also provides a use for waste products that would otherwise be sent to landfills. This is ironic, considering the fact that shelf after shelf of cheap Chinese plastic products will end up in the landfill instead. The store also has 169 skylights to cut the amount of energy required to light the store by up to 75% daily — yet the store will remain open with lights glaring all night, wasting energy and operating at peak inefficiency. The retailer claims the store will create 325 jobs “for so many people, from seniors looking for supplemental income to young people just starting their work experience.” But the company offered no estimates on the number of existing jobs in Austin that will be lost as the Wal-Mart transfers market share. Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm was there to cut the ribbon, while the Executive Director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce applauded. Retired Minnesota Vikings players were on hand to sign autographs. Wal-Mart calls these kinds of events “retailtainment.” It was a thoroughly auspicious start to one of the biggest mistakes in this small city’s history. TV Station KAAL/ABC News was also at the ribbon-cutting, and produced a report that could have been scripted by Wal-Mart. The station went looking for small merchants to ‘balance’ their story. “The retail landscape has changed dramatically with the opening of Austin’s new Wal-Mart Super Center,” KAAL said. “But is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” The local ABC affiliate wondered out loud if “there’s a place for local mom and pop businesses?” After interviewing two local merchants, the stations concluded: “the answer seems to be a cautiously optimistic yes.” Another merchant-in-the-street anecdotal survey. “I’m probably going to have two slow months, maybe more,” says Bonnie Mogen, who owns Bonnie’s Hallmark shop. She may, in fact, soon be able to retire, with no assets to sell. “My store you can always get in and out of very quickly,” she says. “With Wal-Mart here I do believe more people will be staying in town and shopping locally,” Mogen said. The Double KK Specialty store is just across the street from Wal-Mart. “We’ve always prided ourselves on customer service.” says owner Kyle Klaehn. “I’ve built the business on product knowledge, product quality and service to our customers.” Klaehn is hoping that the extra traffic from Wal-Mart will spill over into his cash registers. “If we play our cards right here as a business hopefully we actually gain more than what we lose,” he said. But if Wal-Mart plays its cards right, little merchants like the Double KK Specialty and Mogen’s Hallmark will be out of business within the year.
In Wal-Mart’s wake are thousands of small businesses that bet their future on customer loyalty and superior service. They don’t like to admit how scared they really are that a new supercenter means the endgame for their enterprise. The TV station did not think to interview any nearby grocery stores — but the damage will be worst there. Readers are urged to call Austin, Minnesota Mayor Tom Stiehm at (507) 437-9965 with the following message: “Mayor Stiehm, When you cut the ribbon on the new Wal-Mart supercenter on 18th Avenue NW, you were cutting off the lifeblood for many small, local businesses in your city. Your local news channel interviewed two of them: Mogen’s Hallmark and Double KK. Both of these stores will go under within the first year. That’s just for starters. If you want to see how Wal-Mart operates, drive the 21 miles over to Albert Lea, Minnesota. You can pick up an empty Wal-Mart there for cheap. There’s an 82,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store on West Main Street that was built in 1986. It’s just a few minutes drive from the Wal-Mart supercenter in Albert Lea on Blake Avenue. That Wal-Mart discount store has been sitting empty for at least six years. Wal-Mart has 5 “ghost stores” in Minnesota today, totaling 451,992 s.f. of empty stores. This is a glimpse of your future. Higher crime, more traffic, and more empty stores. That’s what you opened this week. Your city might want to pass a demolition bond ordinance to protect itself from abandoned big box stores — and while you’re making changes — consider putting a cap on the size of retail stores so you never make a 204,000 sf. mistake again.”