CHICAGO — The nation’s largest retailer huffed and puffed and blew into the Windy City this summer, and along the way brought with it much of the same debate Brooklynites have been hearing for the past year about the Bentonvile Behemoth’s move into urban centers.
But since the company opened two SmallMarts — a “Walmart Express” store on Chicago’s south side in July and a “Neighborhood Market” on the western edge of Downtown last week — uproar over its alleged poor labor practices and detrimental effect on small businesses has largely dissipated, say Chicago leaders we spoke to.
“The debate about not letting in Walmart is kind of over,” said Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a state legislature who represents the tony Hyde Park section of Chicago. “We need groceries in food deserts, and Walmart has fresh fruits and veggies.”
As in Brooklyn, Walmart’s campaign to move into Chicago spooked unions, political leaders backed by those unions, and business owners worried that the retail giant could drive down prices and workers’ wages while chomping the profits of neighborhood stores.
But Walmart executives say that the controversy was always overblown and led by a “vocal minority of special interests” spreading “misinformation” — the same argument they are using in Brooklyn.
“The truth is that an overwhelming majority of Chicagoans wanted more affordable grocery options all along, a fact made clear as thousands of local residents — most of whom have never publicly voiced their opinion — show their support for Walmart by shopping our stores every day,” said Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo.
Walmart opened its first store in Chicago in 2006, but Chicago’s city council clashed with former Mayor Richard Daley over the wages and benefits of the company’s workers — delaying Walmart’s opening for nearly five years.
In March, Daley announced six new stores would open in Chicago. His successor, Rahm Emanuel, presided over the grand opening of several of those stores this summer.
And, according to residents, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Anything I need, such as food and groceries, they have it,” said Elisheba Bingham, who was picking up some laundry detergent and personal items. “I use ads from the paper and clip coupons, too — it goes along with [Walmart’s] motto, ‘Save money, live better.’ ”
Walmart Express’s manager, Mark Sanders, said he has seen many repeat shoppers coming three times a week for produce.
“It’s convenient and easy to get around,” said Sanders. “Shoppers want to make sure the store stays here — and they want one in their communities.”