At Large

Retail Politics

Up against the Wal-Mart in lovely Los Angeles.

By 3.4.04

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LOS ANGELES -- A company with a history of offering low prices proposes to bring its style of retailing to town. City leaders should be happy: great deals, more jobs. But not in deracinated L.A. A group of City Council members want to keep Wal-Mart out. It's likely the full council will approve the ban.

The Los Angeles city fathers, who often act more like self-appointed guardians of culture than representatives of the people, are following the path of other upstanding California communities. Oakland, for instance, once banned Wal-Mart supercenters from its hallowed ground. It subsequently allowed a single 150,000-square-foot store to be built, on the condition that it not sell groceries.

Oakland residents will have an advantage that Los Angelinos won't be allowed to enjoy: an opportunity to buy their basic and necessary items at highly discounted prices -- as long as Oakland area consumers don't want to buy food while they're at it.

THE OAKLAND ORDINANCE that banned the store didn't specifically outlaw Wal-Marts in the city. That would have opened the government up to an expensive lawsuit it wasn't likely to win. The law merely forbade discount retailers from opening full-service supermarkets that exceed 100,000 square feet. But it's clear which retailer the Oakland City Council had in mind: the sprawling Wal-Mart complexes.

Likewise, the Los Angeles proposal won't ban the world's largest retailer outright. But the draft wording makes it clear that Wal-Mart stores are the target, just as they have been in other areas, such as Inglewood and Contra Costa County in the Bay Area. (Contra Costa voters, however, rejected the ban in a Tuesday vote on a ballot measure.)

There is some genuine populist dislike of Wal-Mart. According to recent Los Angeles Times letter writers, it is a "cancerous evil," "rotten apple," and a "turncoat" for paying "low wages, paltry benefits" and outsourcing manufacturing, as if that ancient practice had just been created by Sam Walton and his Bentonville, Arkansas, hillbilly mafia.

Grocery Store unions, in particular, hate the retailer because its low prices are likely to force other chains out of business or hold wages down. It's no accident that Oakland wouldn't allow its Wal-Mart to sell food.

BUT THE RELEVANT ISSUE may be that many people in powerful and opinion-shaping positions don't like the company for purely cultural reasons. Wal-Mart cultivates a small-town sensibility, airs hokey commercials, and refuses to cater to Rodeo Drive tastes.

It won't sell racy men's magazines, displays Bibles and popular Christian devotional literature prominently, and sometimes forces music distributors to bleep lyrics if they want to have access to the retailer's massive market. It is the store of NASCAR dads, not NPR moms. With the simple blue aprons, elderly greeters at the doors, and heavily discounted middle end goods, the chain almost revels in its unsophistication.

Wal-Mart had at one time planned to open 40 supercenters in California. That's not likely to happen now, given the massive resistance it has encountered. This change of plans is a real shame, and also ironic. The same sort of people who would recoil at any sort of press censorship see no problem with using the government to keep out a legitimate business largely because it gives off the wrong aesthetic vibe. Poor people will have to pay more for consumer goods as a result, but what do they know anyway?

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About the Author

K. Andrew Jackson is a writer in California.