Saturday, March 26, 2011
Image via WikipediaWal-Mart’s Push in New York Has Look of Political Campaign - NYTimes.com
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS
It persuaded the makers of All laundry detergent to shrink their bottles by more than half to generate less waste. It got thousands of farmers to stop using pesticides. And it encouraged millions of consumers to dump incandescent light bulbs in favor of energy-sipping compact fluorescents.
But for all of its arm-twisting powers of persuasion, Wal-Mart has been unable to achieve the simplest of ambitions: to set up shop in New York City, America’s biggest urban retail market.
It is a galling failure for a company that transcended its humble rural roots to become a global behemoth.
So now Wal-Mart is pursuing that goal with the intensity, sophistication and checkbook of a full-fledged political campaign, hiring star political consultants, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s former campaign manager, producing expensive television and print advertisements and conducting polls.
And it is doing it with the kind of in-your-face aggressiveness that would make a New Yorker proud.
A glossy brochure it mailed to thousands of city residents appeals to their sense of autonomy, declaring: “You don’t ask the special interests or the political insiders for permission to watch TV. So why should they decide where you’re allowed to shop?”
Stealing a page from the candidate playbook, the company has even taken to firing off rapid-response “fact-checker” e-mails to New York reporters to undercut its opponents.
“They look like someone driving toward Election Day,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker. “They have all the things that are on your to-do list if you’re running a campaign.”
But what may be most remarkable about Wal-Mart’s bid is that it is happening at all. Just four years ago, the company proudly proclaimed that it had written New York off. Its chief executive then, H. Lee Scott Jr., said, “I don’t care if we are ever here.”
Much, however, has changed. Wal-Mart’s domestic sales at existing stores, a crucial yardstick in retailing, have been flagging for years, and Wall Street is losing its patience.
The chain long ago saturated rural and suburban markets with its giant emporiums, leaving it one option: to penetrate America’s cities, whose liberal-leaning residents have for years seemed to snub Wal-Mart, which has been criticized over wage and personnel policies. Indeed, Wal-Mart recently announced plans for several new stores in Chicago.
Intentionally or not, a top Wal-Mart executive sounded like a politician during a meeting with investors last October when talking about the company’s urban strategy. “Most people would think that our base in America is probably people who’ve historically self-identified themselves as conservative voters,” said Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations, adding that the company was seeing “very good” growth among moderate voters.
“So now we only have one segment left,” he said. “People who self-identify themselves as liberals.”
In New York, an indisputably Democratic city, Wal-Mart faces a big challenge, both from lawmakers, like Ms. Quinn, and from unions, who accuse the retailer of endangering small businesses and mistreating its workers.
Wal-Mart has responded with an all-out push meant to overwhelm and outmaneuver its far less deep-pocketed opposition. It has put out a flurry of television, radio and newspaper advertisements, including one radio spot that accuses opponents of not caring “about how many jobs Wal-Mart would create or how badly people need them.”
Adopting another familiar campaign strategy, Wal-Mart commissioned its own poll in December that supported its cause. The company said the survey showed that 71 percent of New Yorkers favored having Wal-Mart stores in the city.
(A poll conducted this month by Quinnipiac University found that 57 percent of New York City voters thought that Wal-Mart should be allowed to open stores in the city.)
Helping direct Wal-Mart’s campaign is a who’s who of the political world. Bradley Tusk, a leader in the effort, managed Mr. Bloomberg’s re-election bid in 2009 and is still close to the mayor, a strong supporter of Wal-Mart’s campaign.
Doug Schoen, Wal-Mart’s pollster, is a seasoned political hand who has worked for Mr. Bloomberg, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Dach also has a long political résumé, having played prominent roles in the presidential campaigns for Michael S. Dukakis and Senator John Kerry.
The company has also unleashed an aggressive media strategy, rapidly alerting reporters to anything that might cast its competitors or opponents in a poor light.
The company was quick to point out that Wal-Mart, unlike other chains like CVS, does not appear on a New York State database of companies cited for labor violations.
Though most campaign managers relish the chance to champion their candidate in the news media, Wal-Mart made it clear that Mr. Tusk would not speak to a reporter for this article. Mr. Dach also shied away from talking in detail about the company’s tactics.
“Unlike some of these other campaigns, we’re here to stay for a while,” he said. “We’re in this to talk to people at their own pace, and we want to talk to them in all the different ways they get information.”
Wal-Mart executives declined to say how much they had spent on advertising in New York, but according to Kantar Media, a company that tracks advertising, Wal-Mart spent over $2.8 million in the first half of 2010 on advertisements in Chicago as it battled to build more stores there. In a small but telling change, Wal-Mart revamped its logo three years ago, from a deep-blue version that some marketers said had a politically conservative feel to lighter blue text punctuated by a yellow twinkle meant to suggest a more caring attitude.
Dorian T. Warren, who teaches political science at Columbia University and is writing a book about Wal-Mart’s efforts to open stores in large cities, said the company was pulling everything out of the campaign toolbox.
“They’re trying to influence public opinion and create a political environment that’s supportive,” Dr. Warren said. “Their ground campaign is going into neighborhoods and trying to basically win endorsements of noted leaders.”
In the mid-2000s, Wal-Mart abandoned efforts to open stores in Queens and on Staten Island after encountering stiff opposition from unions, small businesses and local politicians.
The same forces are again arrayed against Wal-Mart, but this time the company believes conditions are more favorable. Now Wal-Mart is widely considered a better corporate citizen, environmentally friendly, with affordable employee health care plans. Company executives think they have earned their place alongside unionized stores in New York, especially since the city has become home to other big-box stores, like Target and Costco.
So far, Wal-Mart has not said where in New York it wants to put its first store, though one frequently mentioned site is in East New York, Brooklyn. While the retailer would not need Council approval to open a store there, that may not necessarily be the case for other sites in the future.
Still, Wal-Mart in New York may not necessarily look like the stores that have forested much of the rest of the country. The main difference would be size — the retailer says some stores in New York would be less than 30,000 square feet, much smaller than the average 180,000-square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter.
Reducing the size of the Wal-Mart buildings will not mollify opponents, who, despite having far less money than the retailer, have organized rallies, recruited support from national groups, attracted a strong turnout at Council hearings on Wal-Mart and set up their own Web site, at walmartfreenyc.com. After Wal-Mart officials declined invitations to testify before the Council this year, detractors likened the decision to skipping a political debate.
But that did not mean the barrage of criticism heaped on Wal-Mart went unchallenged. Inside the Council chamber, two men in crisp suits distributed folders, emblazoned with the Wal-Mart logo and loaded with rosy facts about the company.
The two men, employees of a public relations firm used by Wal-Mart, furiously tapped e-mails on their cellphones to Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman, who was watching the hearing on a computer in Manhattan.
As lawyers and former Wal-Mart workers denounced the company’s labor practices, Mr. Restivo fired off “fact-checker” e-mails to reporters.
“For whatever it’s worth,” read one message, “many of these lawsuits were filed years ago and the allegations are not representative of the company we are today.” Another said, “The assertion that Wal-Mart does not offer maternity leave is false.”
The e-mails kept popping up for nearly four hours.