Like most good urban liberals, I’ve been engaged in a lifelong near-boycott of Walmart. Not so much out of any deeply felt, principled objections to the store, but because they don’t really build Walmarts in big liberal cities. When the company tries to set up shop in a liberal town, it’s frequently stymied by union groups and their allies. The myriad zoning and permitting rules surrounding urban land create many avenues for groups with political clout to block disfavored stores, and such moves have, for example, kept Walmart out of New York City for years.
But on Wednesday, after running a gantlet of political obstacles, two new Walmarts opened in Washington, D.C. And the one I visited, at least, is pretty great. Walmart simply crushes the brick-and-mortar competition available in the city, and its competitors were quite right to try to rig the game against it. The only real question is whether these kinds of big-box stores have any real future at all in the age of Amazon.
The store, at H Street and First Street NW, is designed in an appealing way to fit into the urban landscape. Parking is below ground, the shopping is on a single level, and apartments are above. Eventually, the exterior of the building will be ringed by several smaller shops—build-out is nearly complete on a Starbucks and a branch of Capital One Bank.
Inside, the store has been squeezed into a smaller-than-usual footprint without doing much to sacrifice what’s appealing about traditional suburban Walmarts. There’s a bit less stuff for sale (no guns, for example) than I’ve seen in visits to Walmarts in Maine and North Carolina. But to see the store’s true power, you need to wander over to the grocery section. The United Food and Commercial Workers are at the center of the labor alliance against Walmart, and it’s no coincidence. UFCW represents workers at the region’s Safeway and Giant supermarkets, and the Walmart grocery shopping experience is like what they offer—only much, much better.
It’s a decidedly downscale shopping experience. A range of Hamburger Helper (and Chicken Helper spinoff) was on sale for a dollar a box, you can snag a jar of Ragu meat-flavored pasta sauce for $1.98, and the dairy aisle dedicates more shelf space to conventional yogurt than to strained Greek-style brands. The only real selling point for foodies is the availability of beef tongue, prominently labeled as lengua de vaca and clearly marketed more at Latin American immigrants than gentrifying taco lovers. But compared with the union stores, the aisles are pleasantly wide, the shopping carts all have functioning wheels, and the shelves have every kind of boxed macaroni and cheese a person could want. It even offers some financial services, like a check-cashing operation where you can get up to $1,000 for a $3 fee. Because a good deal on check cashing is a way to get customers in the door and ready to shop, Walmart can offer a much better rate than a stand-alone storefront check-cashing operation that needs to rely on fees as a profit center.
Most damningly, the store is well-staffed with friendly and helpful people who make the Safeway experience seem like shopping in a Russian customs line. The (I assume) lower pay lets Walmart hire more people. And however meager the wages may be, they were high enough that 23,000 people applied for 600 positions at the stores, meaning the people who got picked are probably pretty good at their jobs.
Still, while wandering around, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the urban-format Walmart may be an idea whose time has already passed. The store was actually surprisingly busy for a midmorning Wednesday, with seemingly half the off-duty shift workers and scooter-bound disabled residents of the city plying the aisles. But there was nothing I wanted to buy.
I wasn’t in the market for any fresh meat or produce, and the vast majority of the store is dedicated to dry goods. But why would I buy some socks or a no-stick frying pan or a coffee maker at Walmart when Amazon Prime would ship almost anything to my door in 36 hours? In fact, this past November, just as the finishing touches were being put on the new Walmart, I was getting serious about putting Amazon’s Subscribe & Save feature to use. Paper towels, toilet paper, dish soap, hand soap, laundry detergent, whatever you call the stuff that goes in a dishwasher, dried pasta, canned beans, and basically anything else that won’t rot are now scheduled for drop-off on the 22nd of every month. For now, less-wired demographic groups are still eager for the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. But delivery—no parking, no schlepping—is the future of urban commerce, not reengineered big-box stores.
Walmart knows this, of course, and is trying to get into the e-commerce game in a big way. But even if it succeeds (which will be very hard), urban stores seem unlikely to play a large role in a strategy that calls for goods to be distributed from very large suburban warehouses. In the meantime, cities that have been fending off Walmart have been shooting themselves in the foot. The multibrand physical retail store is a fading concept, but Walmart does it very well—and its downtown D.C. shop shows the company certainly can make it work in urban centers that deign to grant them permission to try.