Does Wal-Mart belong in any city neighborhood, really?

As I write this post, I’m looking outside a window staring at the main battlefront of the Lakeview neighborhood. You see, if Wal-Mart is able to open its proposed Wal-Mart Marketplace grocery store here, I will literally be its neighbor. So as you can imagine, from a personal standpoint, I am not in favor of the potential increase in traffic that could be brought to my doorstep.

However, strategically speaking from a brand standpoint, Wal-Mart doesn’t really belong here either. By virtue of the ground it has already tilled and the kind of customers it has already catered to, it doesn’t belong in Lakeview, Lincoln Park or any city neighborhood. Even a little boutique offshoot of Wal-Mart is still essentially Wal-Mart too. Let’s be real.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against Wal-Mart as a business (although many others do). But you can’t say you’re a wolf and pretend to walk among the lambs. Wal-Mart as a brand has been, is and will always be first and foremost a big box retailer made for suburbanites.

Some will say, “Yes, but what’s the harm? Lakeview already has big name brands like The Gap, Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx…”

Yes, they do. But there is a difference between name brands that occupy a suitable space within a neighborhood cleanly and big box retailers that threaten to alter the landscape in such a way that its impact for the better is questioned. I hardly think there was a big uproar over The Gap coming into the neighborhood. It is not a big box retailer.

Landlords aren’t without blame too.
Some are painting a picture of an already thriving neighborhood but that’s only partially true. Independent businesses have left the neighborhood long before the current debate. Adding Wal-Mart may not help the climate of the small business, but when businesses are shutting down on main streets such as Broadway or Clark without being replaced, you have to take a harder look at the role of property landlords in changing a neighborhood. Could commercial real estate rents be contributing to a skew toward larger businesses coming into the neighborhood – because those are the ones who can actually pay those higher rents?

If that’s the case, perhaps Wal-Mart is not the only “enemy” Lakeview needs to be concerned with.

Two brands can solve everything. If they dare.
Dominick’s and Jewel are local brands that have been in our mindset since we were born. They’re from here. We know them. They know us. They belong locally in both the burbs and the city neighborhoods. They are Chicago. And they fulfill an “everyday” grocery store need that is sorely lacking among a wonderland of expensive gourmet food stores and dingy, limited markets. Dominick’s could’ve plugged this gaping hole by rebuilding its burned down store on Broadway, but that saga has dragged out longer than one can possibly believe. So perhaps it’s left to our friends at Jewel. But they would have less of an incentive to occupy the space since many are driving north now to their location because…the Dominick’s burned down.

All of this is not without precedent. We’ve had big boxes come in before. And I questioned how much they belong too. For example, I’m not sure a Home Depot was the best fit for Lincoln Park not merely because of logistics but because I don’t think their brand needed to be here. Revenue could be had in many a thriving Chicagoland suburb. And we’d keep going to our friendly Ace Hardware man (which we do).

But we’ve never had a big box retailer potentially come in at a place with such visibility. So while I wish Wal-Mart the best, as the brand strategist it’s never hired I would advise it to steer clear of the firestorm of attention in Lakeview it doesn’t need. It’s actually done too good of a job in establishing an identity for itself with a proven concept – it’s just that that concept needs to match the right location to thrive to the fullest.

So remember: Don’t underestimate the importance of location in establishing your brand. What match does the neighborhood have in terms of your target audience’s profile and spending habits? Can many of your true competitors be found here? Do you see potential for a demographic shift to occur that may change that landscape one way or another in the next few years?

If you’re not careful, you may find your own version of trying to fit your Wal-Mart into a Lakeview. And having a Wal-Mart in Lakeview makes about as much sense as a Costco in the middle of Michigan Avenue.

Last note: If you’d like to oppose Wal-Mart coming into Lakeview, there’s a Facebook Group set up for it here nearing 800 members – https://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_159449284099168&notif_t=group_r2j

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2 thoughts on “Does Wal-Mart belong in any city neighborhood, really?

  1. I think Wal-Mart learned something perhaps from their recent experience here in Chicago? They came out of the gate too fast in letting it be known they were interested in a potential space that was NOT a closed grocery store site as you have there in Portland. Little wonder the “Not in my neighborhood” signs and intense meetings that followed, especially being such a prime location. Sounds like they’re setting themselves for an easier transition there in Portland than what they found here. True? I wonder if the neighbors-to-be of Neighborhood Market are putting up a stink there like they have been here? Or have they waved the white flag knowing Wal-Mart doesn’t need their approval anyway?

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