Walmart has a problem in liberal communities. Though its merchandising strategies are arguably similar to other big box stores like Target and Kmart, the company has garnered lots of negative publicity, spawning dozens of websites that decry their approach to personnel management, heavy-handed purchasing agents and aggressive undercutting of local competitors. As a result, the huge Bentonville, Ark.-based company has found in recent years that the path to a new store hasn't always been easy.
In its latest retail experiment, Walmart has been shedding the original store goods and moving into standalone grocery stores called Walmart Neighborhood Market. The Neighborhood Markets are a lot less expensive, with a retail footprint that's less than 25 percent of a Walmart Supercenter, but the savvy company sees opportunity in grocery stores that offer a mix of organic, natural and more mainstream goods and where Walmart sees opportunity, it leaps in aggressively.
Except in the liberal bastion of Boulder, Colo. With a population of just under 100,000, the small town on the edge of the Rocky Mountains is famous for its scenery and smart, athletic population. And its "People's Republic of Boulder" bias. For years residents have lobbied against Walmart coming into town, claiming it would put all the local competitors out of business, even as Home Depot hasn't adversely affected local hardware store McGuckin and the addition of a thriving Target store hasn't put local specialty stores like Peppercorn out of business either.
For months the rumors have circulated that a 52,000 square-foot retail property on the north edge of town was going to be a Walmart Neighborhood Market, and those rumors have been enough that locals have picketed the site and protested to the city council that the company just wasn't welcome in Boulder. The local newspaper, the Daily Camera, has investigated permits filed, compared architecture of the secretive construction project with Walmart projects and placed numerous calls to Arkansas to try and learn more about the mystery construction project, to no avail.
And so when a job listing for management candidates for a Walmart outlet in Boulder, Colo., showed up on Monster.com, there was sufficient confirmation that the mystery store would indeed be a Walmart Neighborhood Market. Seeing that, the company finally confirmed its plans, just to have the local paper warn the announcement could "spawn community-wide debate and protest."
Walmart's coming to town with a new marketplace concept in a mall that desperately needs some success, to compete in a town that's saturated with great supermarket concepts, including one of the biggest Whole Foods in the nation, one of the first Safeway markets to have a complete organic section, experimental natural groceries like Alfalfa's and Sprouts, and even a King Soopers that recently received a multi-million-dollar facelift.
While some locals will continue to decry the presence of the new store, the fact is that Boulder residents have the opportunity to vote with their dollars, because in the end it's a simple equation for any retailer: If people come and shop, the company thrives. If people stay away, they don't.
Walmart's going to be an uncomfortable addition to Boulder, but in time, it'll quite likely prove a success, offering yet another alternative for people looking for the best products at the lowest prices. After all, even the most wealthy of Boulderites can't afford to shop at Whole Foods every week.