May 04--A national grocery retailer is kicking the tires downtown, talking to multiple developers about potential locations to open a new store.
If this retailer's recent track record is an indicator of what is possible, imagine a store that provides all the household staples available in the suburbs plus an array of fresh produce, meats, bakery items, dry, refrigerated and frozen foods. It's a retailer that is backing a ballot measure to change liquor laws and almost certainly would add strong beer and wine to its offerings if it could.
Based on formal surveys of downtown Oklahoma City workers and residents, such an addition would address the widely desired addition to the urban core.
Reveal the retailer is Walmart, however, and the response is far less embracing. When I asked hypothetically if readers would welcome Walmart or wait another few years for a different option, more than half of those responding on Twitter said they'd prefer to wait.
Their perception of Walmart is one of a legacy that includes poor pay and benefits for employees, financially squeezing vendors, hurting small towns, and outsourcing to overseas manufacturers.
During a tour of Bentonville, Ark., last week, I saw a Neighborhood Walmart that would be an ideal fit for downtown Oklahoma City.
On my NewsOK blog OKC Central, I shared my initial observations from the trip. At first I thought this was just Walmart showing off in its hometown. But then I spoke with Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., who has written about Walmart's entry into urban areas.
Walmart, he noted, is expanding into downtowns throughout the country. The company is opening both Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets. With the saturation of suburbia, and growing populations in urban cores, McMahon sees such growth as the "last frontier."
Walmart is a great tenant for a developer's bottom line, but I discovered some who would have ideal downtown Oklahoma City locations and future retail space for a store like Walmart share the negative perception, even after seeing stores like the one in Bentonville. And as I shared on OKC Central, I too did not have a good perception of Walmart.
But is the retailer changing? Is it time to re-evaluate what Walmart is, and what it could add to downtown?
The numbers appear to show a company that is responding to some of its worst criticism. In March, the retailer announced nationwide raises that were given to 1.2 million Walmart and Sam's Club employees, including 18,000 in the Oklahoma City metro and 30,000 statewide.
The raises are part of a two-year, $2.7 billion investment in higher pay, better training, career paths and education opportunities. Bonuses are being paid to employees of top performing stores, and last year those bonuses totaled $15.9 million for employees in Oklahoma. Promotions are taking place as well, and 4,615 part-time employees in Oklahoma last year were given full-time status with improved benefits.
Much of the change started when Doug McMillion was named CEO in February 2014. McMillon started as an hourly store associate and then rose to the top as the retailer was getting beaten up by investors.
A year later after McMillon's rise to CEO, the starting wages were raised to $1.75 over the federal minimum wage. The last increase, another dollar raise, was implemented in February.
I called Anne Hatfield, director of communications for Walmart, to get more on these changes and was informed the changes go even further. The company eliminated a one-day wait that was required for sick time, and better coordination is taking place with employees on scheduling. Even the pay raises go further than the $10 starting wage.
"That doesn't really represent what our associates are paid," Hatfield said. "There is a range as you work your way up the company. ... You move up, you earn more. And every single pay band got a raise in February."
The top hourly wage for those who advance, she said, is now $24.
"Reshoring" of products is also a campaign promoted by Walmart, including an "open house" every June in which entrepreneurs can book appointments to pitch placement of their items in stores across the country.
What Walmart and its representatives won't acknowledge is the perception and legacy that created this love/hate relationship with consumers. But as the retailer continues to makeover its stores and how it treats employees and vendors, maybe Walmart is content to let the numbers do the talking.
Hatfield responds that the retailer's image issues are a result of a humble corporate culture in which its philanthropy is just a part of doing business, and not something that has been traditionally bragged about. Last year, the retailer gave more than $36 million to Oklahoma charities.
So as downtown residents and workers contemplate what it might mean to have a Walmart, the question may remain -- has the retailer had a change of heart?
"Our stores today are much more focused on serving customers," Hatfield said. "I know that sounds very generic, but it's true. We're building stores, we're remodeling stores, we're focusing on fresh food, fresh produce, fresh meat and fresh bakery sections.
The retailer has launched an online ordering and pickup service that is already operational in Oklahoma City (imagine this downtown). A busy customer can order what they want online, drive up to the store and the bagged items are delivered to the car, free of charge.
I've spoken to customers who have used this service -- and they love it. They say the produce they get is often better than what they see in the stores.
Walmart does not have an "urban store" prototype or format. For that matter, Hatfield insists each store is customized to meet the needs and demands of each community. So as McMahon notes, the retailer is showing increased comfort with stores in downtowns that rely on structured or underground parking, or even no parking whatsoever. And yes, that means a potential downtown store also could boast online ordering and pickup, which I suspect would be a big hit with downtown residents and its growing workforce.
"There is a huge change happening in retail where it's becoming a combination of online and brick-and-mortar stores," Hatfield said. "Shoppers want to shop how and when they want."
They also want to shop at stores that they see as a good partner in building their communities. Maybe Walmart got that message.
And maybe it's time to ask, if Walmart is interested in downtown Oklahoma City (they won't discuss their real estate negotiations), could this be as good if not better than the gold standard of a downtown Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Uptown Market?
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