Essay by Martha & Ed Quillen
Wal-Mart – September 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine
In some spots, such as Steamboat Springs and the entire state of Vermont, the mere rumor of an arriving Wal-Mart is enough to ignite controversy. That didn’t happen in 1986, when Wal-Mart opened a store in Salida.
But now there is controversy. The company — the largest retailer in the world — wants to build a bigger store west of town on the site of the old Groy drive-in theater, across the road from the terminus of County Road 111.
So far as permits, utilities, and attitudes are concerned, city and county officials appear to favor an expanded store. But the local newspaper, The Mountain Mail, has editorialized against it.
Those positions are perfectly understandable in strict economic terms. All told, Wal-Mart sales taxes put about $330,000 a year into the city treasury. So it’s little wonder that the city wouldn’t mind a bigger store.
Based on sales-tax figures and Wal-Mart’s own statements, in 1993 the Salida store took in $12.2 million; Salida’s total retail sales were about $49 million. Thus Wal-Mart gets one dollar of every four spent in Salida.
And with sales taxes, the city of Salida gets to share in Wal-Mart’s success. The city’s 2-percent sales tax brought in $979,800 last year, with Wal-Mart alone accounting for $249,950 of that. Add Salida’s 32 percent share of Chaffee County’s sales taxes, which includes approximately $78,000 from Wal-Mart alone, and it stands to reason that our city government supports a bigger store — since a larger store will presumably generate more retail sales, and thereby more revenue.
To believe that our city officials should protect other businesses from Wal-Mart is to ignore the fact that we hold our officials responsible for the roads, sewers, water treatment, buildings, parks, and other infrastructure Salida has been expected to provide. For city and county officials, Wal-Mart is hard to resist.
But from the economic standpoint of a local newspaper — or any local medium, from KVRH to Ah to The Chaffee County Times — Wal-Mart is a catastrophe just short of a repeal of the First Amendment. The company advertises via national television and direct mail, but seldom in local media.
Apply some bottom-line analysis to this, and it hurts. The average retailer spends about 7 percent of gross proceeds on advertising including radio, TV, direct mail, billboards, et al, with about 25 percent of this going to newspapers. So here’s our Wal-Mart with $12.2 million in annual sales which should generate nearly $275,000 in advertising money for the local media.
But it doesn’t. The Wal-Mart advertising budget goes to TV networks, centralized high-speed four-color printing operations, and the Postal Service.
Thus it makes no economic sense for any local publication, including Colorado Central, to support an expanded Wal-Mart, or even to say a kind word about Wal-Mart. It doesn’t support us, and it cuts into the people who do support us, so why on earth should we care what happens to Wal-Mart? Does Wal-Mart care what happens to us?
Well, of course it does — if whatever happens keeps all of us from shopping at Wal-Mart. But on the whole, many small-town editors feel if Wal-Marts were replaced by craters tomorrow morning, local media would be better off.
This isn’t just how small-town publishers see things. The drugstore owner in Viroqua, Wis., said he wanted “to engage the National Guard to fire five rounds of a 105-mm howitzer through their front door.”
THERE’S STILL MORE to Wal-Mart and its effects on communities, so much more that economic experts now research “the Wal-Mart syndrome.”
Typically, Wal-Mart opens a store on the edge of a small town. The downtown merchants — the people who donate for new band uniforms and serve on public boards and keep the local newspaper in business — wither and disappear because they can’t meet Wal-Mart’s prices.
It should be noted that Wal-Mart isn’t the only chain that invests in highway strips and freeway off-ramp locations, and disinvests in small-town downtowns. A few years ago, a Salida downtown franchisee wanted to expand its quarters. The national folks said, in essence, “if you’re going to move the store, move to the highway, or kiss your franchise good-bye.” Sears abandoned all its catalog outlets in favor of shopping malls. There are a lot of powers besides Wal-Mart working against small towns and downtowns.
In some retailing circles, Wal-Mart is “the Merchant of Death.” There are national organizations which offer seminars on survival after Wal-Mart moves in.
A new Wal-Mart typically gets more than 80 percent of its business from existing local stores, and that can devastate a small town. When it got a Wal-Mart, Anamosa, Iowa, lost two men’s shops, a shoe store, a children’s clothing store, a drug store, a hardware store, and a dime store.
How do some towns survive? Retailers realize they can’t beat Wal-Mart on price, and focus instead on selection and service. They go after niches that Wal-Mart can’t serve (or won’t — for instance, Wal-Mart refuses to sell recordings with parental-warning stickers).
They spruce up downtown, thereby converting shopping into a leisure activity, complete with park benches, ice-cream vendors, galleries, and visual attractions. To survive the Wal-Mart syndrome, small towns have to become fairly credible competitors of Renaissance Fairs and city malls.
Although we don’t recall any “how do we survive Wal-Mart?” seminars in Salida, that’s exactly what Salida did. Downtown got new sidewalks and street lamps. Historic buildings got renovated. Merchants changed their product mix.
Downtown Salida looks better, and is a much more interesting place today, than in 1985 before Wal-Mart arrived and empty store fronts were common on F Street. Wal-Mart may even have helped.
First off, Wal-Mart may have checked a trend toward complaisance. New competition tends to get the old-timers up and running.
But there are economic factors, too. When you discuss how people shop in one place or another, two terms appear: “magnet” and “leakage.”
A magnet is a store which draws people from other towns into a market town to shop. Look through the Wal-Mart parking lot, especially on a Saturday, and you see cars and trucks from Saguache, Custer, Park, and Lake counties. They’re coming to Salida to shop at Wal-Mart.
But while they’re in town, they might also catch a movie, go out to lunch, boogie at the Vic, browse in a bookstore, or get a radiator core soldered because Salida has a radiator shop and their town doesn’t.
If we go to the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, it’s a magnet, because we’ll also eat lunch, drop in on Media Play, etc. That’s the magnet effect.
NOW FOR LEAKAGE. When the Salida Wal-Mart functions as a magnet for a Saguache shopper, the money spent in Salida represents “leakage” from Saguache. When we used to make the “Targét run” to the city to stock up on commodities like toothpaste and toilet paper before Wal-Mart opened, that represented leakage from Salida.
Wal-Mart corporate propaganda, sent to towns where the chain wants to install stores, argues that Wal-Mart “creates a retail hub” which brings in outside business, and that it helps “plug retail leakage.”
Based on our own experience and observations, that seems valid to some degree, but once again, there aren’t any numbers available.
If it is indeed true that a new Wal-Mart plugs leaks and attracts trade, the numbers don’t indicate that it happened here. Chaffee County’s retail sales in 1985, the year before Wal-Mart opened, were about $113 million. In 1986, opening year, about the same. Come 1987, and there’s a healthy increase to $124 million. So the leaks were plugged and the magnet was attracting $10 million more in local sales?
No, because in 1988, retail sales dropped to $116 million. In 1989 and 1990, they returned to the 1987 level before starting to soar in 1991.
Whatever those numbers tell us, they don’t say much about Wal-Mart’s effect on local retail sales. Sue Conroe, executive director of the Heart of the Rockies Chamber of Commerce in Salida, says there’s been talk of conducting more detailed studies, but it hasn’t gone much further than that.
SUE SUFFERED A REBUKE, or something very much like it, when she spoke personally, not as a chamber official, at a public hearing about changing some zoning to accommodate Wal-Mart. She brought up concerns about open space between Salida and Poncha Springs.
Wal-Mart responded to the effect that it was a dues-paying chamber member that also contributed to local charities, and so how dare Sue exercise her rights as a citizen concerned about her community?
Apparently, Sue has no right to care about Salida — not when those fine folks in Bentonville, Ark. are so capable of determining what sort of place we should live in. Yet much of the controversy about a new, improved, bigger, and better Wal-Mart concerns that threat of suburban sprawl which Sue Conroe addressed.
Between Salida and Poncha Springs, the countryside is still pretty rustic with livestock and hay meadows, but if you’ve got Wal-Mart at the edge of town, the next parcel to the west is a good site for a Wendy’s. Followed by Domino’s. Hardee’s. Denny’s. Subway. Popeye’s. Midas. Grease Monkey. A five-mile strip of world-renowned franchises extending from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Holiday Inn.
There is a benefit to such strip development. You’d be less likely to bump into a deer along that stretch.
But the result would look pretty hideous, and drive even worse. During prime times, even near small towns, too many parking lots pouring onto a major artery can generate traffic worthy of a Superbowl or a Woodstock.
But Wal-Mart’s good for the city treasury, right?
Right, says Patsy Brooks, Salida city administrator, who also noted that “The good news is that we’re down to having only one pot hole to fill. The bad news is that it’s Fourth Street.”
Some towns, like Silverthorne and Castle Rock, have prospered mightily with the sales taxes rolling in from hard-core retailing in the form of outlet malls.
“Promoting lots of retail trade does look like the answer,” Brooks said. “Especially in a tourist area, because tourists do pay a lot of the sales tax dollar, and they don’t stay around to demand services.”
Even though that’s good for the municipal treasury, it’s not an undiluted benefit to the community at large. “Retailers, especially chains like Wal-Mart, tend to employ a lot of part-time people at minimum wage.”
Nationally, the average weekly wage is $417 for all sectors of the economy; the average retail weekly wage is $231.
“If you tried to build your town’s economy on retailing, you’d have a community of poorly paid people who get few if any fringe benefits. How are they going to buy houses and raise children and establish a stake in the community? How much is your social services budget going to rise when you’ve got so many people trying to get by on so little? Those are social costs you may not see at first when the sales-tax dollars roll in, but they’re going to come if all you have is retailing.
“Another problem is that when you rely on sales tax which comes from tourism, you can really get whipped around with variations in the national economy. Retailing is nice, but it can’t be everything.”
She wants a diversified local economy — some retirees, some home enterprises, and especially some manufacturing, whose average weekly wage is $525. “You’re still tied to the national economy and its ups and downs, but when one sector is down another will be up, and if you have enough sectors, the way is smoother and we’ve got a better community.”
BUT THERE’S A BIGGER Wal-Mart storming at the gates, and only God and Wall Street know where it will take us, and even Wall Street isn’t too sure. Economics experts, stockbrokers, and bankers don’t really know what overall effect Wal-Mart will impose on other retailers.
That’s because who you are, and what you buy, are extremely complex issues — which is one of the reasons Wal-Mart can be exceedingly irritating. One can stroll through the local Wal-Mart and see what their corporate researchers think we’re like.
Our book section is smaller than most, our computer department is minute, and our housewares department is barely adequate. But our infant and crafts departments are far more satisfactory.
At the Salida Wal-Mart, there are always sales racks of women’s clothing in extra-large sizes, indicating Wal-Mart has concluded that rural populations are much fatter than Salidans actually are. But at the same time, Wal-Mart always seems to be out of cat food.
Far worse, however, is Wal-Mart’s insistence upon first-name service, fake smiles, and a Disneyland ethos. Although the corporation is not known for its generous wages, Wal-Mart fliers tout the Wal-mart family by featuring down-home Wal-Mart employees and their children, all looking as happy as cats at a fish fry.
For some reason, it’s not surprising that Wal-Mart doesn’t bother to employ, or pay, professional models. Nor is it surprising that the Salida city administrator cites Wal-Mart’s wage scale as a disadvantage — although it’s assuredly more of a disadvantage for those who work there than for our city government.
Yet as Wal-Mart sees it, all of this is to offer us the best of prices on a constantly changing inventory based upon current market trends — which more or less means that customers can’t rely on their local Wal-Mart to actually have any given item in stock at any given time.
On the other hand, Wal-Mart is not nearly as much of a demon as some people would have us believe. Wal-Mart is merely the replacement part left to us by a national retailing establishment which has pretty much abandoned small towns in the last decade.
In recent memory, Sears, Montgomery Wards, Ben Franklin, Western Auto, and Woolworth’s have departed, and Wal-Mart has moved in. So in the end, the real question is — “Is Wal-Mart worth fighting?” Wal-Mart may be sleeker, greedier, and more efficient than its predecessors, but is it a menace?
SOCIAL CRITICS OFTEN OBJECT to large retail chains because they fear America is being converted into a generic “monoculture.” According to their doom scenario, Americans are so dominated by national merchandisers like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken that everyone in the country will soon be one and the same — bland consumers without any ethnic or regional spice.
Yet unless one believes that Wal-Mart and the Gap are actually promoting the same culture, a true monoculture isn’t a possibility. Regional cultures, however, are definitely mutating.
You can buy Tex Mex and Cajun food in New York City, and you can enjoy Chinese food and chamber music in Salida, or po’ boy sandwiches and jazz in Westcliffe.
Whether we like it or not, a certain degree of monoculturism seems to be a product of improved communication. But in this era of culturally cloning Americans so they’ll all want to buy blue Barneys, stuffed Lion Kings, Pepsi, M&Ms, Swanson’s dinners, or what have you, TCI Cablevision probably plays a bigger role than Wal-Mart.
The days of grocery delivery, milk men, and door-to-door fruit and vegetable vendors are gone. Women work, and children have to be picked up at daycare. People commute, sometimes long distances, and even our children have jobs. In hectic modern times, the attraction of one-stop shopping is undeniable.
But the survival of small towns as we like them — with small stores offering idiosyncratic inventories, human beings who are allowed to show a little eccentricity, and merchandise choices not always available at Wal-Mart — depends upon all of us remembering that Gambles offers excellent service, that Gibson’s has great sale prices, that there are better places than Wal-Mart to find a special gift, and that small town druggists not only answer your questions, but often make themselves available when there’s an emergency in the middle of the night.
The automobile has pretty much wiped out the small-town ambience of places like Conifer and Woodland Park. So it behooves us to remember that although you can still enjoy walking in almost any town in Central Colorado — that amenity is more endangered than the spotted owl. That’s a national trend.
But as a major instigator of such change, Wal-Mart isn’t even a contender. Salida’s downtown can survive a Wal-Mart — even a huge, super-economy sized Wal-Mart. But it probably couldn’t survive an outlet mall, or any mall, for that matter. Malls are direct substitutes for downtowns.
And perhaps more grievous, malls can introduce a host of stores like J. Crew and The Gap, all at one time, and then all of them can promote their own version of American culture in your town while absolutely ignoring your region’s distinctive style and history. Thus, as threats go, Wal-Mart is a piker.
As for Highway 50, with or without Wal-Mart, the problem of development between Poncha Springs and Salida needs to be addressed soon. Wal-Mart’s proposed site across from a motel, however, is not so far out that it encroaches on truly non-commercial land.
But perhaps the most important consideration in evaluating a new Wal-Mart is that Wal-Mart’s present site is a disaster. If moving Wal-Mart will mean that fewer pedestrians and bicyclists will have to risk life and limb crossing an ever-busier highway to shop at a discount store, the move will be well worthwhile.
Yet our city certainly doesn’t need to extend favors. Wal-Mart should pay their fair share of taxes. It should pay for a traffic light. It should make its parking lot entrances safer. Before Wal-Mart is built, the city should evaluate whether a back access road is possible, and whether it would be helpful.
Wal-Mart should be turned down flat if its choice of site will mean extravagant expenditures by the city in order to assure water supplies or highway access for a world-class profit-makers. One of the most enduring mysteries of the American system is why tax-payers are expected to supplement the earnings of corporations that are richer than some first world nations.
Irritating, understandably unpopular with newspapers, and unloved by much of the public in spite of its “family values” advertising image, Wal-Mart still offers a few advantages — since even minimum wages are better than none, children love the place, and the old catalogue outlets are gone for good.
Even better, Wal-Mart does seem to put courtesy before security. Remember when discount stores scrutinized customers before letting them enter? Remember how they used to check purses and staple shopping bags shut? Hokey or not, Wal-Mart’s policy is an improvement on the old-fashioned method of treating every customer like a felon.
But the question remains: “Is a bigger Wal-Mart a threat?”
And we can only conclude, very cautiously, that the answer depends on whether we let it be.
The forces of American commerce have smashed everything that ever stood in their way from Shay’s Rebellion to the Confederate States of America to the Soviet Union. So sometimes it’s easier to believe that Elvis lives than it is to believe that small towns can repel such forces.
Yet if Salida, with its sidewalks, benches, quaint brick buildings, and small shops, is the sort of place we want to live in, then we had better resist the tendencies in ourselves that make new malls thrive and old downtowns die.
Wal-Mart can’t transform us.
But we can.