Wal-Mart is a peculiar American entity, a grand free enterprise success, yet in other ways counterintuitive to certain American values.
With its ubiquitous retail presence the world's largest Wal-Mart is now Sacramento's No. 2 grocer, having gone from nearly zero presence to a 14 percent share in just six years, surpassing all competitors but Raley's of West Sacramento, The Bee recently reported.
You could probably fill a Walmart Supercenter with all the studies, documentaries and articles produced about it. Its legion of detractors has practically turned Wal-Mart criticism into a cottage industry. Hey, if you like them, shop there. If you don't, don't. Likewise, either you choose to work there or not, though in tough times, with choices fading for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, where you work doesn't always have much to do with "like."
I don't dislike Wal-Mart at all, but I choose to shop elsewhere. I shop local wherever I can. I buy American whenever I can. Wal-Mart is neither, and to me, the small, local business, often touted as America's economic backbone, is a better investment in my community and the economy, especially given that small businesses those with fewer than 500 employees make up half our gross domestic product and account for most job growth.
A Walmart Supercenter will break ground next year on Interstate 80 near Sierra College. Though on Rocklin land, it's closer to Loomis and presents looming challenges for their small downtown shops.
"It's gonna be a big factor," says Gordy Takemodo, whose Main Drugs has been a family business since 1945. "They probably use their pharmacy as a loss leader." His children aren't interested in continuing the family tradition and at 68, you sense that he's likely to cash out, retire and leave behind an empty storefront.
But Cru Ginno, who manages Nelthorpe Appliances, says bring it on: "They have every right to put a store in. They're a business, just as we are. People who fear Wal-Mart simply fear competition. It's honest competition."
But is it?
After vacating a formerly occupied space in the Southgate Plaza in favor of a nearby location, Wal-Mart has refused to sublease the floor space to a competitor. Why? Left unresolved, Southgate Plaza and the community would be burdened with a huge vacancy for the next 14 years.
We tend to think Wal-Mart puts local businesses out of business because they can't compete with the box store's lower prices. Not exactly, as I learned in an interview several years ago with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston. "Big-box stores," he told me, "get special advantages from the government."
For instance, the sales taxes you pay? "Often the government never gets that money," said Johnston. "Instead, those sales taxes are used to pay for the cost of the store."
It's called tax increment financing. Corporations make deals with local governments under which sales taxes are kept by the box store and used to finance its operations. In other words, "the store is tax-exempt, just like a church," Johnston said. "Keeping those revenues is one reason Wal-Mart is able to keep prices so low."
That's revenue that might otherwise go toward local police and fire, schools, infrastructure, parks and libraries. But imagine you own the retail store down the street. You've been there for years. A Wal-Mart comes in. Now you're competing against both a business competitor and a government that's enabling it with an enormous subsidy, one never granted to the little guy.
"That's not market capitalism," Johnston said. "That's corporate socialism." For a $447 billion company.
California ranks eighth of 38 states in which Wal-Mart has received tax subsidies, costing Golden State taxpayers nearly $51 million over the last two decades, according to WalmartSubsidyWatch.org, which analyzed various state and local government records.
Rocklin and Placer County officials tell me Wal-Mart received no such subsidies, which is good, but subsidies come in many guises, including tax abatements, enterprise zone tax benefits, free or reduced-price land, infrastructure and site preparation assistance.
"Wal-Mart couldn't have gone in unless that overpass across 80 was widened," Loomis Mayor Walt Scherer said.
Is that a government subsidy, I ask?
"Absolutely," Scherer said. "They used public money to build that overpass."
Will it generate new revenue? No, according to Johnston, who, in a recent Reuters column, cited many studies noting that growth is almost entirely derived from a region's population and income. A new Supercenter succeeds largely by taking sales away from other existing outlets a different form of wealth redistribution.
Rocklin City Council member Scott Yuill counters: "If a city has land zoned for a particular use, we should leave the area vacant to please anti-Wal-Mart factions?"
I begrudge no one who shops at Wal-Mart. I simply prefer shopping locally and buying American-made. Not an easy task and getting harder. Wal-Mart isn't helping. And sometimes, they're hurting.