Monday, December 1, 2008

Competitor News: Where is 'Wal-Mart America?' A Demographic Look and Analysis

Fresh & Easy Buzz Editor's Note: The official U.S. commission that reports whether or not the country is "officially" in an economic recession reported today that indeed the United States is in a recession -- and has been in one since December, 2007, making the current recession already the longest since the 1980's. Our analysis, and that of the majority of government and independent economists, is that there are worse times to come before the economy starts to gets better. We see the current recession lasting most likely all of next year.

Both Wall Street -- commercial banks and what's left of the once mighty investment banks -- as well as main street --the "Big Three" Detroit auto makers, chain and independent retailers of all formats, and nearly every other industry and business -- are feeling the pressures of the economic recession and related financial and credit crisis to different degrees, ranging from being on the verge of bankrupcy to having to make serious cutbacks, to seeing stock share values melt away, in the case of publicly-held corporations.

Mega-retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is on fire though, despite and in part because of the serious economic recession.

The retailer is experiencing a consumer flight to its U.S. Supercenters and other format stores by food and grocery shoppers in general, along with by consumers of nearly all income levels looking for holiday shopping bargains. After all, who cares where you buy that Ipod for daughter Cindy or computer for son Chip for Christmas right now, as long as it's offered at the best price available. And few consumers can even afford such gifts for Christmas. For many its a trip to Wal-Mart for its $10 and $20 Christmas gift selections this year.

Wal-Mart has been growing its share of the food and grocery market in the U.S. over the last few years considerably, recently unseating Kroger Co. as the number one retailer of groceries in America on an overall, national basis.

And that was even before about the middle of this year when the retailer began experiencing considerably higher customer counts in its stores with a particular focus on shoppers buying food and grocery items at primarily Wal-Mart's Supercenters, but also at its Sam's Club stores and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market supermarkets. Consumers have flocked to Wal-Mart for consumables in even greater numbers since late September and early October when the first signs of the financial crisis started to hit.

As a result, it appears when it comes to shopping at least, and perhaps even more, Wal-Mart is America right now.

Dante Chinni, who writes the Patchwork Nation Blog for the Christian Science Monitor takes a look at Wal-Mart in the United States in what he calls a "Patchwork Nation" in an excellent demographic analysis piece titled: 'Where is 'Wal-Mart America'? Below is that piece:

Where is ‘Wal-Mart America’?
Christian Science Monitor
Patchwork Nation blog
By Dante Chinni
December 1, 2008

The early returns from the holiday shopping weekend show some good news for retailers and quite a bit of good news for one in particular: Wal-Mart. With the holiday air heavy with economic angst, the store that promises “always low prices” is one of the few that is expected to post good numbers for the season.

But most retailers in America don’t elicit the strong love-hate reactions that Wal-Mart does. In some locales, residents welcome the hangar-sized megastores, seeking their low-cost TVs, clothes, and groceries. Others have voiced concerns about what Wal-Mart does to smaller local retailers and how the company treats its employees.

It is arguably a part of America’s culture wars, complete with a documentary by a liberal filmmaker that blasts the company and a robust selection of pro- and anti-Wal-Mart websites. Even last weekend wasn’t without controversy for the retailer, when early on Friday morning an employee was trampled to death at a Long Island store.

Given all the attention paid to the stores, is there such a thing as “Wal-Mart America”? If so, where does it reside?
More than 3,700 Wal-Marts are open for business in the United States, so it may be that the term “Wal-Mart America” is almost redundant. Still, when the store locations are analyzed through the lens of Patchwork Nation, differences among the sites emerge.

Of the 11 communities that represent the various county types in Patchwork Nation, all but one have a Wal-Mart less than 20 miles away. Some have multiple stores. (A Wal-Mart is a bit further down the coast from Lincoln City, Ore., which represents our small-town “Service Worker Center.”)

In terms of sheer numbers of stores, the wealthy, largely suburban “Monied ’Burbs” lead the way, with 885 Wal-Marts in their boundaries. But that’s largely due to the number of people that live there – roughly 85 million.

A better measure may be Wal-Marts per 100,000 people, and that method yields very different results. One finding: The stores seem to have their strongest base in communities with a conservative tilt.

The highest Wal-Mart-to-person ratio exists in the aging “Emptying Nest” counties (2.4 Wal-Marts for every 100,000 people) and in the socially conservative “Evangelical Epicenters” (2.0 Wal-Marts for every 100,000 people).

Also scoring high are the “Military Bastion” counties located around armed-forces bases (1.8 Wal-Marts for every 100,000 people) and rural agricultural “Tractor Country” counties (1.7 Wal-Marts for every 100,000). Both of those types tend to lean Republican.

For the most part, Patchwork Nation correspondents in Hopkinsville, Ky. (our “Military Bastion”), and Sioux Center, Iowa (our “Tractor Country” community), speak fondly of their local Wal-Marts.

Meanwhile, the reliably Democratic big-city “Industrial Metropolis” counties have the lowest Wal-Mart-to-person ratio – at just 0.5 per 100,000 people.

Also on the low end are the more politically divided county types: the “Monied ’Burbs,” the growing and diversifying “Boom Towns,” and the “Service Worker Centers” (all those places have 1.4 Wal-Marts per 100,000 people or less). Conversations we’ve had with residents in some of these communities reveal a negative value judgment about the chain.

For instance, in Eagle, Colo. (our “Boom Town”), debate abounds about “big-box store” development. But the discussion changes for many when the name on the “big box” changes. Talk about the arrival of, say, Whole Foods, and you’ll hear warmer words. You’ll hear something else about one of Sam Walton’s superstores.

In part to appeal to communities that are less interested in them, Wal-Mart has recently introduced a new logo and is hipping it up a bit. The approach also includes a new motto about “living better.”

In some communities that consider themselves progressive, criticism has risen over how the company treats and pays its employees. Look at Ann Arbor, Mich. (our collegiate “Campus and Careers” community), where some people have signed up to start a Boycott Wal-Mart Meetup Group. No Wal-Mart is within the city limits yet, but there is one in neighboring Ypsilanti, Mich.

Protests or no, Wal-Mart has established quite a foothold in those “Campus and Careers” counties (1.9 stores for every 100,000 people). Cash-strapped students are often among the most concerned with stretching their dollars.

Watching how Wal-Mart performs and grows in all these communities in the coming years could be telling. If the current economic downturn deepens, protesting against or boycotting a company that promises low prices may become harder for some. And the Wal-Mart battlefield in the culture wars may shrink.

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