If at first you don’t succeed, don’t succeed again. Wal-Mart is a now a two-time loser in Lawrence, Kansas. The company has been trying to build a superstore in Lawrence by arguing with local officials that it is a “variety store” and not a “department store.” But according to the Lawrence Journal World, the retailer’s first try failed, then it went to court, which sent the case back to the city. This week the city said No a second time, leaving a second court trip in Wal-Mart’s lap. One of the landowners told the Journal: “We’re in this for the long haul. We’ll see this through to the very end, when we get our building permit.” But the Planning Board voted last Thursday to repeat the city’s denial last August of Wal-Mart’s proposal for a 132,000 s.f. store. The fact is, a “department store” is prohibited from locating at the specific site in question. So Wal-Mart said it was a “variety store”. “The applicants seem to think they have the right to flout the zoning ordinances and Horizon 2020,” one Board member said, referring to the city’s land use plan. “The insistence that a large Wal-Mart should be described as a ‘variety store’ is simply beyond my comprehension.” Department stores are defined in city codes as a “retail establishment not less than 20,000 square feet in floor area, offering a wide variety of merchandise and services, with at least 60 percent of the floor area devoted to the display and sale of nonfood items.” The Assistant City Manager was quoted as saying: “It sounds like a Wal-Mart.” To reinforce this fact, neighbors of the project produced evidence from Wal-Mart’s own filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, in which the retailer referred to itself as first among “discount department stores.” Another resident showed Yellow Pages listings in more than 100 cities that show Wal-Mart under “department store” headings. “Never did I find Wal-Mart listed as a variety store,” one resident said. “It’s safe to say that millions of Americans find Wal-Mart listed as a department store in their phone books.” Wal-Mart has the next 30 days to think about appealing again to the Douglas County District Court.
What’s in a name? Wal-Mart’s denial that it is a “department store”, or even worse, calling itself a “variety store”, shows the lengths to which the company will go to avoid complying with city ordinances. In my ten years of dealing with Wal-Mart, I have never seen them describe themselves as a variety store. Sam Walton may have started his career in a Ben Franklin variety store, but he never referred to his company as a variety store. The added fact that city officials clearly don’t want this location as a supercenter doesn’t seem to affect Wal-Mart at all. They have demonstrated repeatedly that what local officials want or think is of little consequence. Wal-Mart invokes its customers for all its actions, and dismisses community decisions by going to a higher authority: Wal-Mart shoppers. The Lawrence officials are to be commended for holding their ground. If Wal-Mart wants real “variety”, let them find another location that does not upset city officials.