Walmart has launched a major advertising blitz to garner support for its controversial quest to open its first New York City superstore in an East New York shopping center — an end run around many local lawmakers who oppose the mega-retailer.
On the eve of a Wednesday City Council hearing that the retailer intends to skip, Walmart is taking out ads in dozens of local papers, including the Brooklyn Paper and Courier-Life chain, and on Monday started a website that recruits city residents to sign a petition in favor of a store, whether the current proposal for the Gateway II shopping center near Jamaica Bay — or a just announced plan that could bring a Walmart to the southern tip of Flatbush Avenue.
Company spokesman Philip Serghini told councilmembers that Walmart would skip the hearing — which concerns the supposed negative economic impact of a Walmart in the five boroughs — because local councilmembers and unions are unfairly trying to block the Behemoth of Bentonville, yet have allowed other national retailers to take over the Big Apple.
“The committee [should] first conduct a thoughtful examination of the existing impact of large grocers and retailers on small business in New York City before embarking on a hypothetical exercise,” Serghini wrote in a letter.
For now, Walmart is waging its campaign much like an election — with direct pitches to the voters, in this case, would-be Walmart customers.
“It’s up to you to bring Walmart to New York City,” reads the banner of WalmartNYC.com. The site insists that locals already spend $165 million at Walmart stores outside the city, so the Big Apple deserves to have its own store to reap the tax benefits, which totaled more than $400 million for the state in 2010.
The site goes on to list other benefits of a city store, including job opportunities, inexpensive products and the overall convenience of having a one-stop-shop for pretty much every necessity.
The home page also links users to a poll Walmart released in December showing that 76 percent of Brooklynites would welcome the superstore.
“We know that job creation and access to affordable food are significant needs in the city and we think our stores can be part of the solution,” said Steven Restivo, director of community affairs for Walmart. “New Yorkers overwhelmingly support Walmart, so we’re using social media to listen to the conversation, tell our story and give our supporters a voice.”
But many lawmakers and union leaders feel differently, objecting to Walmart’s non-union policy, low wages and alleged impact on mom-and-pop shops.
“Rather than owning up to their job-eliminating and small-business-shuttering business model, Walmart executives would rather spend untold amounts of money on a flashy propaganda campaign to buy their way into New York City,” said Eric Koch, a spokesman for Walmart Free NYC, an anti-Walmart coalition that formed six years ago.
Walmart has been prone to criticism throughout its retail rise, dating back to a devastating PBS report in 2004 that the majority of its employees with children live below the poverty line, but supporters say that the company has changed many of those labor practices.
But the PR blitz convinced one opponent that Walmart is all talk and no action.
“The site shows that [Walmart] is desperate because it knows it is not good for our community,” said Councilman Charles Barron (D–Canarsie). “Their PR campaign may build up fluff, but Walmart is a bad corporate entity.”