Sizing up my new neighbor: Wal-Mart - The Packer

Sizing up my new neighbor: Wal-Mart

12/05/2011 08:47:00 AM
Bruce Blythe

Last week, the big retailer opened its third Chicago location since last summer, a small Express store wedged into an 83-year-old but otherwise nondescript building that was once home to a dairy processor and a candy maker.

Up until now, I’d been observing Wal-Mart’s urban expansion mostly from a distance. Before this year, the company had only one store inside Chicago’s city limits, a supercenter more than six miles away that I’d never visited. But the new Wrigleyville store obviously hit close to home.

Will “Everyday Low Prices” fly with the North Side yuppies, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city?

Wal-Mart portrays its new urban stores as an altruistic effort to bring jobs and healthy foods, including fresh produce, to poorer, underserved city-dwellers. 

That may be true, but there’s also this profit thing, and the company has shown a pretty good knack in that regard, as net income of $15.4 billion in its previous fiscal year attests.

Still, sales at Wal-Mart’s core rural and suburban supercenters sagged during the past two years, so tapping new markets is crucial for the company’s longer-term growth, analysts have said.

In the Wrigleyville area, roughly seven out of 10 residents have college degrees and median annual household income runs north of $80,000, nearly double the average for the entire city, according to government statistics. So it makes sense for any retailer to be there.

But like Chicagoans’ relationships with their food and food providers, it gets complicated.

While Wrigleyville takes its name from the ballpark, just a few blocks north of the new Express, in the Uptown neighborhood, a higher crime rate looms and many people who appear to be homeless often hang around empty storefronts. 

Bruce BlytheChicago's Walmart Express in Wrigleyville is part of the company's effort to expand into urban areas in hopes of bolstering sales.There’s also plenty of competition in the grocery business.

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