CHICAGO — Wrigleyville, the North Side neighborhood in Chicago where I’ve lived for more than a decade, is home to a number of historic or just-plain-old structures, one probably most widely known as the place where Cubs fans’ dreams go die.
A couple of blocks east of the Friendly Confines, Wal-Mart’s big-city dreams are very much alive and becoming reality.
Last week, the big retailer opened its third Chicago location since last summer, a small Express store wedged into an 83-year-old but otherwise nondescript building that was once home to a dairy processor and a candy maker.
Up until now, I’d been observing Wal-Mart’s urban expansion mostly from a distance. Before this year, the company had only one store inside Chicago’s city limits, a supercenter more than six miles away that I’d never visited. But the new Wrigleyville store obviously hit close to home.
Will “Everyday Low Prices” fly with the North Side yuppies, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city?
Wal-Mart portrays its new urban stores as an altruistic effort to bring jobs and healthy foods, including fresh produce, to poorer, underserved city-dwellers.
That may be true, but there’s also this profit thing, and the company has shown a pretty good knack in that regard, as net income of $15.4 billion in its previous fiscal year attests.
Still, sales at Wal-Mart’s core rural and suburban supercenters sagged during the past two years, so tapping new markets is crucial for the company’s longer-term growth, analysts have said.
In the Wrigleyville area, roughly seven out of 10 residents have college degrees and median annual household income runs north of $80,000, nearly double the average for the entire city, according to government statistics. So it makes sense for any retailer to be there.
But like Chicagoans’ relationships with their food and food providers, it gets complicated.
While Wrigleyville takes its name from the ballpark, just a few blocks north of the new Express, in the Uptown neighborhood, a higher crime rate looms and many people who appear to be homeless often hang around empty storefronts.
There’s also plenty of competition in the grocery business.
How the Express store fares in a location such as this should provide a good barometer of the success of Wal-Mart’s expansion efforts here and in other large cities.
Chicago for years stymied Wal-Mart efforts to build here, partly because of battles with unions that pushed the retailer for minimum salaries and other concessions.
Among some friends of mine here, when the subject of Wal-Mart came up, it seemed they’d rather saw off a limb than set foot in one of its stores, such was their disdain for the company and what they perceived as a shopping clientele of redneck and bumpkin stereotypes.
In this space last spring, I criticized Wal-Mart’s Chicago plans, saying the company would be better off focusing on improving results from its traditional supercenters.
Shockingly, Wal-Mart did not heed my advice.
Already the country’s largest food retailer, Wal-Mart will continue to open stores in big cities and continue to sell even more food. That’s a given.
Resistance is futile.
But at the opening of the Wrigleyville Express Nov. 30, little urban elitism was evident among the shoppers with whom I spoke.
All but one of the eight or so people I interviewed had favorable reviews of the store and said they’d likely shop there again.
One 54-year-old man, who said he’d recently lost his job, considered Wal-Mart a welcome addition to the neighborhood, saying more competition will help keep food prices in check for people like him dealing with a tough economy.
Inside the store, there were no flat-screen TVs or other such items for sale at a typical supercenter, but there was a respectable selection of apples, lettuce, pork chops and other fresh foods, along with a pharmacy. It’s small but clean, well-lit and easy to navigate.
In baseball parlance, it’s more of a bunt single or bloop single just over the second baseman’s reach — not fancy or majestic, but it gets the job done.
In times like these, maybe that’s good enough.
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