Wally World Wanes?

After years of steamrolling competitors with ruthless efficiency, Wal-Mart might be suffering from the drag of its own weight. According to the Sacramento Bee, the world’s largest retailer is having trouble gaining a foothold in the world’s fifth largest economy, the Republic of California.

Wal-Mart faces a unique quadruplet of obstacles in California: Liberals who don’t want the chain in their neighborhoods, strong unions who object to Wal-Mart’s employment practices, an influential environmental lobby that hates big box sprawl, and pricey Left Coast real estate.

Wal-Mart hasn’t faced this combination of roadblocks in other states. For example, “Texas has one-third fewer people but twice as many Wal-Marts” as California, according to the Bee.

California communities are devising creative laws to block out Wal-Mart. But what is interesting for us geographers is which communities. If you at the Bee map below, and if you know anything about the Bear Republic’s congressional layout, you’ll notice that communities that elect Democrats are more likely to block Wal-Marts.

The Inland Empire, Palm Spring area and Central Valley are just fine with Wal-Mart. It’s the Bay Area, Pacific Coast and L.A. burbs that seem to have a problem:

Wal-Mart in California

But Wal-Mart’s stumbles in California may be emblematic of a bigger problem. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Wal-Mart’s influence over the retail universe is slipping. In fact, the industry’s titan is scrambling to keep up with swifter rivals that are redefining the business all around it.”

Why? Consumers want better quality, better service and better selection. Wal-Mart also suffers from a “down-market, politically incorrect image,” according to the Journal. And can’t you just see those Left Coasters complaining about quality and selection while quietly harboring concerns over image?

But Wal-Mart is still a force to be reckoned with. They expect to build 170 to 190 of their 200,000 square foot supercenters each year, according to the Journal.The Journal produced a series of maps showing where Wal-Mart has opened stores and where they intend to. Check out the slide show here, and my compilation below. As you can see, Wal-Mart had one store in California in 1990 and had relatively few 11 years later:

Growth of Wal-Mart

Why is California’s reluctance to embrace Wal-Mart so telling? Because, as the Almanac of American Politics notes, California “likes to think of itself as the America of the future.” I guess time will tell whether America agrees.


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