Altadena Walmart a year later: Some small competitors thrive, others fail

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It's been 13 months since retail giant Wal-Mart Inc. opened a Neighborhood Market store in Altadena, stoking fears that the discount grocery store would devastate local small businesses, fears chronicled by KPCC in a series of stories last year.

So how has it turned out? KPCC revisited some of the small businesses in the area and found starkly different outcomes. 

Irma Leticia Vega — whose Nuevo Poncitlan Meat Market faced competition both from Wal-Mart and Super King, which opened nearby six years earlier  — is thriving, having made the choice to transform her business from a grocery to a purveyor of homemade Mexican food.

In contrast, Raul Gonzalez — who expected increased sales for his Family Fashion Clothing store as the new market drew more customers to the area — has seen no sales bump. The way Gonzalez runs his business hasn't changed much, except that there are more discounted clothes these days. His sales were so bad last year he had to use money earned from his other jobs to keep the store running, he said.

The Walmart Neighborhood Market at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Figueroa Boulevard is just a fraction of the size of a Walmart Supercenter, but its impact in the working-class neighborhood has been huge since it opened.

Brent Musson — a Town Councilman in this community in unincorporated Los Angeles County — told KPCC that he is thrilled Walmart has made the area more vibrant. The retail giant moved into a building that was vacant for years, with an adjacent area known for dogfights and prostitution.

Now, Musson says as he stands in front of a busy Walmart parking lot, "Cars are coming and going. We're around the corner, and we still see the activity. People want to shop at this grocery store."

For her part, Vega saw a threat from Walmart but declined to give up her business. Instead, she transformed it, changing her Nuevo Poncitlan Meat Market to Ponci Burrito Express, a move that has kept her store alive. She got rid of the groceries at her store and now primarily sells homemade Mexican food.

"We're thriving," Vega said on a recent day as she moved to the cashier to ring up several customers eager to pay for their lunches. 

Vega's market used to be the corner store on Lincoln Avenue 20 years ago, but that changed when ethnic grocer Super King opened on the opposite street corner. She said sales took a hit and got worse when Walmart opened the Neighborhood Market last year.

"At that point, my focus was providing a service to the community that both of these giants don’t. And what do they not have? Mexican authentic homemade food," Vega said.

RELATED: How Wal-Mart's sourcing, pricing challenges neighborhoods 

The view was different across the street. Raul Gonzalez stood in front of his store, Family Fashion Clothing, where the building is in need of repair.

“And then you can see, all these beams there, they are old," Gonzalez said, pointing out the flaws in the worn storefront. "They are probably going to have to replace them. As you can see, we have no lights here.” 

Gonzalez said sales were so bad last year he had to use money earned from his other jobs to keep the store running.

“When they opened the Walmart here, we thought there would be more foot traffic, but it’s not happening," he said.

In general, the Neighborhood Market has been successful at bringing more customers to the area, and the store has also hired many Altadena workers,Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said. 

"There is momentum growing," Garcia said. "There is a bright future for the center itself and all the businesses there."

Garcia said the store plans to add items to its Altadena store, including alcohol. Walmart has begun the process for getting a liquor license from the state.

"It's just part of being able to serve our customers and give them the convenience of finding all the products they are looking for in one location," Garcia said.

RELATED: Altadena Walmart: Small businesses worry about competition from major retailer

Walmart’s plan to sell alcohol is something that concerned local shop owner Sanghui Yoo, who runs All Star Liquor. In 2012, Yoo said her husband had trouble sleeping, worried about the Walmart Neighborhood Market opening across the street. 

“Definitely when Walmart opens over here, our business amount per month will be decreased," Yoo said at the time. She estimated All Star's sales would drop 20 to 30 percent when the Walmart opened. Yoo declined to comment for this story.

The working class neighborhood is changing: A shoe repair shop closed and three tenants of a nearby commercial building left, including a hair salon and the CD store Spin-Off Music.

The 2,850 sq. ft. structure was bought by Pasadena publisher Colleen Bates for $385,000, according to NAI Capital. Bates said she plans to move her publishing house, Prospect Park Books, to the building and rent out the space to tenants.

CD store manager Kevin Harris declined to comment.

RELATED: Altadena Walmart: New store could help Spin-Off Music

At least 10 businesses — including Bates' building — will get help from Los Angeles County to beautify their storefronts on Lincoln Avenue. The county has allocated $216,000 for the hard costs of the project that will happen within 60 days, said Elisa Vásquez, public information officer for the Community Development Commission. 

Altadena Town Councilman Musson is excited and said, "Hopefully that kind of facelift will be more inviting for new business to come in." 

He said small businesses should work with Walmart, instead of fight it.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between a large fish and a small fish in the ocean.," Musson said. "If you know that you’re the small fish, you don’t pick a fight with the large fish, you take a ride with the large fish and that’s sort of what has to happen.”

That's what burrito shop owner Vega did. She spent thousands of dollars improving the look of her store. She got rid of some refrigerators, opened the entryway of her store with new glass and now uses her meat counter as a place for burrito and taco ingredients.

“So now it’s more visual," Vega said. "People going up and down the street actually stop and try our food, rather than it’s just a market. It’s changed. It’s changed dramatically.” 

Some of her customers even work at Walmart. 

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