There are consultants who hire themselves out to Chambers of Commerce across America, promising to teach small businesses how to “survive and thrive” in the face of a Wal-Mart supercenter. They emphasize better customer service, longer hours, and diversified product lines — strategies that have failed for the past thirty years. Today Wal-Mart announced that it will manage its own public relations effort to convince Americans that the business responsible for the demise of the greatest number of small merchants is now going to help those same small merchants thrive. The giant retailer, constantly looking for a decent PR break in the storm around it, has unveiled plans to build 9 stores in areas that need economic help, and to use their over-sized stores to lift up other small merchants, through such innovative approaches as public announcements about these merchants inside Wal-Mart stores, and ads in the local newspaper. Wal-Mart said it would work with local chambers of commerce, business groups and minority-owned businesses with the goal of guiding new suppliers and helping new or existing shops to thrive. “We’re looking at working families that need us the most,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. “That’s where we want to go.” The theory is that rising sales at Wal-Mart will lift all boats — despite decades of evidence that the main beneficiary of a sale at Wal-Mart will always be Wal-Mart, and that as much as 80% of their sales come from other cash registers. Like every “cause-related marketing” ploy that Wal-Mart tries, today’s events were loaded with more symbolism than substance. Last spring, Wal-Mart had announced the equivalent of a “slummin” party, in which the wealthy corporation would go into poor neighborhoods and lift the masses out of their suffering, like a cross between Mother Teresa and the Statue of Liberty. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said the company was looking for areas with high crime or high unemployment. Based on Wal-Mart’s track record, if a community does not have high crime before Wal-Mart arrives, their 24/7 superstores can lift the crime rate faster than you can say parking lot. Wal-Mart will pick 5 small businesses every three months near their target stores, with the goal of teaching them the truth about “how to take advantage of having a Wal-Mart in your market.” Wal-Mart explained, “It could be any type of small business in the area that would draw on our traffic.” Perhaps a store selling tropical fish and long term care insurance. The Governors of the states of Pennsylvania and Indiana were to be on hand today at Wal-Mart’s PR events in Indianapolis and Pittsburg. Other locations for these “chosen” stores: Cleveland, Ohio; Decatur, Georgia; El Mirage, Arizona; Landover Hills, Maryland;. Portsmouth, Virginia; Richmond, California; and Sanger, California.
It’s not hard to imagine droves of shoppers disgorging their discretionary income at the west-side Chicago Wal-Mart, and then stopping off at the local coffee shop for a slice of homemade apple pie, while the groceries sit in the car. They will tell the coffee shop owner, “We’re here because Wal-Mart told us to stop by your business.” The unionized grocery stores will suddenly prosper. Shoppers will buy only half of their deli items at Wal-Mart, and then they will jump in the car again to buy the rest of their cold cuts at a local food market. They will buy their prescription drugs at Wal-Mart, then drive to the area drugstore to stock up on over-the-counter cough syrup. These small businesses will finally be able to take advantage of having a Wal-Mart four times the size of a football field in their neighborhood. Wal-Mart will run such in-store announcements as, “Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers, when you are done ordering your building supplies, please make it on over to Larry’s hardware, and pick up a few ten-penny nails.” Just as Wal-Mart has saved the environment with its handful of environmentally-friendly “green stores,” so it will save small business with these new ‘bootstrap’ stores. There are no benchmarks for measuring success, but it is unlikely that two or three years from now, the media will go back to these 9 communities and ask the small businesses there, “Did Wal-Mart drive traffic to your door, or just drive you out.” As the Wal-Mart commercial used to say at the end: “Next stop, home.”