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A giant seeks a smaller footprint
Posted On: Oct 02, 2007

Wal-Mart plans to shrink new stores to ease opposition in state.

Three years ago, Stockton welcomed a Wal-Mart Supercenter, the first in Northern California, with open arms. Last month, the city passed a law forbidding Wal-Mart from opening any more of them.

The City Council's 6-1 vote bans all new big-box grocery stores but is clearly aimed at Wal-Mart, which had proposed two more Supercenters.

"There's a feeling that one 'super Wal-Mart' is sufficient," said City Manager J. Gordon Palmer Jr.

Success in California has come slowly and grudgingly for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Although it has opened 31 Supercenters in the state since early 2004, it has encountered resistance on a scale not seen elsewhere.

Local activists and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery workers, have halted or delayed Wal-Mart's advance through lobbying and litigation in roughly two dozen communities. Elected officials and judges have listened sympathetically to their argument that non-union Wal-Mart harms communities by paying substandard wages and putting local retailers out of business through relentless discounting.

"When the story is told, it resonates," said Jacques Loveall, president of UFCW-Golden 8 in Roseville.

Wal-Mart's hurdles in California aren't all political. Costly real estate upsets its business model, which depends on cheap land for its massive stores. The state's incumbent grocery chains, once thrown off stride by Wal-Mart, have learned to compete more effectively.

Wal-Mart "came in with a plan to take the state by storm," said Robert Reynolds, a supermarket consultant in Moraga. "It is very slow going -- it is expensive."

Coupled with Wal-Mart's national problems, including sluggish earnings, the California struggles are prompting the company to rethink its strategy. Consultants say Wal-Mart is planning a new grocery format that's the size of a convenience store with an upscale feel. The idea is that a smaller footprint would churn up less political friction.

"Much of it has to do with the public opposition that they've faced, most prominently in California," said analyst Stephanie Hoff of Edward Jones in St. Louis.

Another factor is new competition from Britain's Tesco, which is planning small markets in California and the Southwest.

"Wal-Mart, which is finding itself blocked more and more over footprint size, is paying attention to what Tesco is doing," said Richard George, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Wal-Mart wouldn't discuss the plan, but spokeswoman Tiffany Moffatt said, "We're always looking at new formats." She said any new format would be driven by customer preferences, not competition or politics.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and the nation's No. 1 grocer, acknowledges some hiccups in California but says it is pleased with its progress.

"Our Supercenters have been extremely successful," Moffatt said. Supercenters, which average 185,000 square feet, are nearly twice as big as regular Wal-Marts and contain full-line grocery stores.

Wal-Mart is more successful politically in some places than others. Where there's more open space, or there's a clear need for jobs and retailing, union influence tends to wane and the climate is friendlier.

Greater Sacramento's four Supercenters are sprinkled around the edges of the region. The area's first truly urban Supercenter, which opens next year, will land at a site that's been struggling for years, the former Florin Mall.

Wal-Mart held 4.8 percent of the area's grocery market as of December, says Nielsen Trade Dimensions.

But Wal-Mart's overall California presence is tiny by the standards of a $345 billion-a-year company. It runs 208 stores in the state, including Sam's Clubs. Texas has one-third fewer people but twice as many Wal-Marts.

One reason is politics.

"A lot of California, politically, is dominated by union interests. Wal-Mart galvanizes that interest," said Larry Kosmont, a land-use consultant in Encino.

At least 12 communities have passed big-box laws similar to Stockton's. Five others, including Sacramento, require economic-impact studies before mega-groceries can be built.

Two Bakersfield Supercenters were blocked by a lawsuit claiming they'd spawn environmental blight by hollowing out local business districts. Similar suits have tied up Supercenters proposed in Lodi and Chico for years.

Wal-Mart beats some opponents. It defeated a "blight" lawsuit in Gilroy and persuaded San Diego officials to reject a big-box law similar to Stockton's. At Wal-Mart's urging, voters overturned Contra Costa County's big-box law. The newest Supercenter, in American Canyon, opened earlier this month after three years of wrangling.

Sometimes "special interests have delayed the process, but we've found that time and time again, when the public gets involved, consumer choice ultimately prevails," Moffatt said.

At the Stockton Supercenter on Hammer Lane the other day, shoppers pledged their loyalty to Wal-Mart and expressed anger at the city's new law.

"Wal-Mart is such a great store, great values," said Kathy Wickstrom, 61. More Supercenters "would have given Stockton a lot more jobs." The average store employs 350 workers.

Stockton once saw Wal-Mart as an economic boon. But proposals for two more Supercenters and a SuperTarget sparked lobbying by activists and the UFCW. The council, trying to cultivate a more upscale image for Stockton, pulled the welcome mat.

Stockton now bans stores greater than 100,000 square feet that devote more than 10 percent of their space to nontaxable items such as groceries.

The law and others like it are rooted in the theory that mega-markets don't generate enough sales tax to compensate for the traffic and pollution they cause. But often the real issue is Wal-Mart, and all it represents.

"For some people it has become a symbol of evil," said consultant Mark Lilien of Retail Technology Group.

Image problems have contributed to the company's national struggles. Publicity campaigns by the UFCW International and the head of the Service International Employees Union have hit Wal-Mart on issues like outsourcing and employee health care.

Sales growth has been hurt by a misguided merchandising strategy that emphasized upscale apparel. High gasoline prices have impacted Wal-Mart's working-class base. Amid disappointing second-quarter earnings, Wal-Mart curtailed national construction of Supercenters by a third.

In 2004, when California's first Supercenter opened in La Quinta, "it looked like all the retailers in the state were on the run," said consultant Burt Flickinger III.

Citing the threat from Wal-Mart, unionized supermarket chains wrangled cost savings, but not before a costly strike gripped Southern California. Workers accepted concessions in Northern California, too.

As Supercenters spread, so did their influence, likely playing a role in Ralphs grocery's decision to pull out of Sacramento.

But grocers found they could compete by emphasizing organic foods, nicer stores and selective discounting, Flickinger said. The UFCW largely abandoned a futile effort to organize Wal-Mart's workers and discovered it could influence city councils.

"There's no question we're making more progress on the political front," said Loveall, whose local represents 30,000 grocery workers in the Central Valley.

When it hears of a proposed Supercenter, the Roseville local bombards city councils with anti-Wal-Mart DVDs and white papers and enlists employees of unionized stores to speak up at public hearings.

Results have been mixed. While Stockton issued a decisive rebuke to Wal-Mart, Elk Grove passed an ordinance that exempted two of the city's main commercial districts, the Calvine and Lent Ranch areas.

The Elk Grove law isn't "as sweeping or as substantial as we'd like it to be," but is still a victory for labor, Loveall said.

A law similar to Stockton's has been recommended by the Planning Commission in Galt, where Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter. The Galt City Council is set to consider the recommendation Oct. 16.

Wal-Mart's struggles are affecting labor relations. A new contract in Southern California restores many of the previous concessions. In Sacramento, where most contracts expire Saturday, management negotiators invoke the specter of Wal-Mart less often.

"They're acknowledging that the campaign to keep Wal-Mart at bay has borne fruit," Loveall said.

But grocers say Wal-Mart can't be ignored. "They have not grown as fast as they originally predicted. ... But we still consider a company like Wal-Mart a growing and legitimate competitor," said Safeway Inc. spokesman Brian Dowling.

By Dale Kasler and Jon Ortiz - Bee Staff Writers
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, September 30, 2007

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