Kiss your town centre goodbye

Wal-Mart is accused of decimating small-town life in the US, writes Dan Gledhill
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The Independent Online
Perhaps Dean Cook should have seen Wal-Mart coming. The dentist from Ticonderoga might have realised that his home town in upstate New York was just the sort of vulnerable target that the giant American retailer loves to prey on.

Barely two hours drive from Montreal, Ticonderoga is home to 5,000 people in what has long since ceased to be the engine room of America's manufacturing base. To Wal-Mart, which last week announced an agreed bid for Britain's Asda, Ticonderoga represented just the latest victim of a 37-year orgy of expansion that has earned it a reputation as the biggest and most ruthless retailer in the world.

Mr Cook, who spearheaded the unsuccessful campaign to prevent Wal-Mart building a giant store on the outskirts of the town, takes up the story: "It was like they came in the night, went to the town fathers, swore them to secrecy, and then announced it the following morning. We didn't get enough grassroots support. People just thought with their wallets. We didn't see the big picture soon enough."

Nobody in Ticonderoga can fail to see the big picture now. Since Wal- Mart's store opened 10 months ago, three of the town's shops have closed. Another two are on their last legs.

"The first thing Wal-Mart did was to ring round all the stores undercover to find out their prices," recalls Mr Cook. "Then they just undercut them. Wal-Mart's store may have created 75 jobs, but they have already cost the town 40."

It is testimony to Wal-Mart's relentless drive that they overcame the local opposition fomented by Mr Cook, even though Ticonderoga is a mere pinprick in the company's gigantic empire. Since 1962, when brothers Sam and James Walton opened their first store in Rogers, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has mushroomed into the world's largest supermarket chain with annual sales of $137bn (pounds 86bn), almost three times the size of its nearest rival. Their strategy has been to open huge stores encompassing a vast range of products on the outskirts of often depressed towns where the lure of cheap prices is irresistible. "Stomp the comp" is the attitude to opposition.

Little wonder the City of London went into paroxysms of joy on Monday when Wal-Mart revealed its interest in little ol' Associated Dairies with its piddling annual turnover of pounds 7.6bn, which only seven years ago was on the brink of collapse.

Ask any of Wal-Mart's 815,000 employees - America's second largest payroll after the Government's - for the secret of its success, and the answer is likely to be: "The customer is always right."

Wal-Mart, which has built a chain of 3,600 stores in less than four decades, prides itself on selling its enormous range of products cheaper than anyone else. Everything is designed with the customer in mind, from the elderly greeters at the door to the fulsome assistants required to chaperone any shoppers they see within 10 feet of them. Their motto? "Who's always right? The customer!"

Wal-Mart has not become America's fourth-largest company without picking up a multitude of loyal shoppers who are eternally grateful for the few dollars of extra change they go home with after their weekly shop. But for every devotee, there is a detractor keen to point out that what the consumer saves at the check-out, American society has paid for in other ways.

Al Norman was alerted to Wal-Mart six years ago, when the group decided to open one of its retail monoliths in his home town of Greenfield, near Boston, Massachusetts.

"Most people were neutral to the idea," he says. "But the more I saw of Wal-Mart, the less I liked them."

After leading the local anti-Wal-Mart campaign, Mr Norman soon found himself inundated with inquiries from worried citizens from other towns on the company's hit-list. He has now set up Sprawl-Busters, an independent organisation that co-ordinates opposition to Wal-Mart's store openings.

Mr Norman has found that residents of prosperous towns where Wal-Mart has designs are especially keen to enlist his support. He helped Lake Placid, for example, the affluent skiing resort that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1980, to block the opening of a store.

But Mr Norman admits that more depressed areas tend to be more receptive to the lure of Wal-Mart's "stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap" message. Wal- Mart has always been careful to appear in touch with the working-class customers who made it. Until his death in 1992, co-founder Sam Walton remained unfazed by his pounds 15bn fortune, continuing to drive an old pick- up truck and refusing to pay more than $5 for his haircuts.

Wal-Mart is also proud of its commitment to home-grown products, although that reputation is to be contested in the courts. Wal-Mart stands accused of giving some garments "Made in America" tags, when they are allegedly made in Asia.

Saving on grocery bills is only part of the picture, according to Jill Cashen at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has been highly critical of Wal-Mart's treatment of its staff. Behind the collectivist terminology, where employees are cutely known as "associates", she says there lies an employer who refuses to permit union membership.

Ms Cashen accuses Wal-Mart of being lousy payers who keep their staff on part-time hours to avoid incurring responsibilities for their health insurance, hence passing the burden to the state.

"They are the model of American corporate greed," she says. "They target local communities and undercut established stores there for the sole purpose of putting them out of business. They do not build jobs or help the tax base, just create sprawl which is an eyesore."

Ms Cashen is also critical of Wal-Mart's attitude to female employees, pointing to a stream of lawsuits that have been filed against the company for alleged sexual harassment.

The giant retailer does not always get its own way. With the help of Sprawl-Busters, Kathy McCoy mobilised local opposition to a planned store near her home town of Tijeras, New Mexico.

"Ours is a quiet mountain area and I was concerned about the enormous traffic that the store would bring with it," she says. "I think when people realised the implications, they forgot about being able to save 20 cents on a pair of socks."

Last week, she won a famous victory. But the Wal-Mart bandwagon is unstoppable, as the UK is soon to discover.