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Big box invasion: Walmart finds loophole in LA County

Wal-Mart store in Los Angeles, California. Is an influx of Walmart stores coming to LA?
Wal-Mart store in Los Angeles, California. Is an influx of Walmart stores coming to LA?

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In Los Angeles, big-box stores like Walmart have faced protests, ballot measures and resolutions designed specifically to keep them out of town.

Their opponents say they lower wages and push out neighborhood mom and pop stores. But in the wake of the recession, megastores may have found a loophole — stores like Walmart are buying up space left vacant by defunct retailers such as Mervyns. It allows them to surpass public hearings, zoning permits and environmental impact reports that have blocked them from neighborhoods in the past. Walmart’s latest conquest? Burbank.

In footage from an upcoming SoCal Connected episode about the issue, protesters march on city hall, shouting “No Walmart, be smart” in an effort to stop the superstore’s expansion. SoCal Connected Correspondent Judy Muller talked to KPCC’s Patt Morrison about their fiery response to the Walmart’s plan to spread.

“If there’s one corporate name that elicits strong reactions it’s Walmart. You don’t hear about that kind of reaction with Target or any of the other big-box stores,” Muller said. “They’ve got this reputation for paying almost poverty wages and not providing good enough health care. As a matter of fact a lot of their workers do apply for welfare.”

KPCC invited Walmart to speak on the topic, but no one from the company was available for questioning. Muller said Walmart might argue that their low pricing habits allow those strapped for cash to purchase necessities, and an addition would open up jobs for the unemployed. But Muller said that providing job spaces isn’t enough.

“It pressures down the wages everywhere. If you come in and open a big box store like this, other retailers are going to say ‘well, we’re going to lower our minimum wage as well,’ and it really does have a ripple effect,” she said.

Muller cited a study UC Berkeley put out in April this year about big-box retail. According to research, if Walmart upped their wages to 12 dollars an hour, 41 percent of pay increase would go to workers in families below the poverty level. And even if Walmart passed 100 percent of the wage increase onto the backs of consumers, the average impact on a Walmart customer is 1 percent.

While some are protesting the superstore’s strategy, other city inhabitants are happy to have a Walmart — and its jobs and low-cost products — in the neighborhood. Muller said she’s spoken to Harry Arzoian, owner of a small grocery store called “The Handy Market,” who said that his customers will stay loyal and Burbank is large enough to absorb Walmart’s impact. Muller added that some consumers may not follow what they preach.

“People vote with their pocketbooks. I think there are a lot of people who will ‘tsk tsk’ about Walmart’s low pay and say it’s outrageous, and then quietly shop there. I’ve talked to people like that,” she said.


Judy Muller, correspondent for SoCal Connected

The all-new episode of SoCal Connected airs Friday, October 7 at 8:30 p.m.