After saturating rural and suburban America, Walmart touted a new strategy in the early 2000s, opening stores in Chicago and other cities.
But the world's biggest retailer faces a tough challenge as it tries to hang its flag in Chicago, a city of unity. Activists protest, job coalitions demand living wages, and small business owners worry that Walmart will blackmail them.
Then, 17 years ago, Walmart triumphed over promises of convenience and economic development when it opened its first major store in Chicago on the West Side.
After that, Walmart set its sights on the South Side to build a supercenter on a vacant plot of land at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue. Again, community rejection demand better wages from a company known to be anti-union.
Walmart seducing a reluctant Chicago and waging public relations campaigns, sponsoring farmers' markets, giving out free watermelons and pledging diversity and jobs for ex-convicts.
In 2012, a Walmart Supercenter opened in Chatham, with 350 jobs.
At the opening ceremony, Ald. Howard Brookins (21) said: “It was worth fighting for. Chicagoans living on the South Side deserve the same economic opportunities that Chicagoans on the North Side take for granted.
On Sunday, however, the supercenter and three of Walmart's smaller convenience stores — neighborhood markets in Lake View and Little Village and another on the Grand Boulevard-Kenwood border — will close forever after less than a week's notice, shocking customers and those who remember. Walmart is looking for ways to do business in Chicago.
Announcing the closure, a company representative said: “The simplest explanation is that collectively our Chicago stores have been unprofitable since we opened our first one nearly 17 years ago — these stores lose tens of millions of dollars a year, and their annual losses have nearly doubled. only in the last five years. The remaining four Chicago stores continue to face the same business difficulties, but we think this decision gives us the best opportunity to help them stay open and serve the community.”
Walmart also said community and city leaders had been open and supportive for years but there was nothing the company could do to make closed stores profitable.
Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, was shocked to hear this.
“Everything is so fleeting that you really don't have a chance to plan,” says Fears. “Walmart says they've been working with the community, but I don't know who they're working with in the community to tell us that they're struggling, that they're not profitable. I know, from cellphone data, 270,000 people visit the store every year.”
Brookins said Walmart informed him of the closure of the Chatham store two hours before the announcement, which came as a surprise to him as the store reopened and renovated after the 2020 civil uprising.
But the outgoing Chicago City Council member said company officials told him the store was losing money because of higher security and theft costs.
Brookins says he has no regrets and says encouraging Walmart to come into his community is the right thing to do. Lowe's was opened by a Walmart and across the street opened a Studio41 Home Design store, which he points to as proof that business begets business.
“There is a dearth of shopping outlets in the African-American community,” says Brookins. “Obviously, we as a community cannot expect to have to leave the community for any type of goods and services that we need.”
But he said national retailers like Walmart had yet to figure out how to operate in urban markets.
Private companies, of course, don't need to open their books to prove that stores aren't profitable. But some Walmart shoppers are hesitant.
“This place has never been a ghost town,” Chatham resident Marlon Lacey says of the shop in his neighborhood. “Something doesn't sound right, but I wish we had someone independent to actually do the math to find out what money they were actually making. My son's barber is here. My daughter's school is near. So if I need something from Walmart, I can come right here. But not now.”
Lacey was among shoppers in the parking lot of the Chatham supercenter a day after Walmart announced it was closing. People stocked up on groceries, televisions and sports equipment. They hugged employees when the Pace bus dropped off passengers with disabilities.
“It sucks that a lot of people have lost their jobs because of this,” said shopper Jermell Conwell. “This is the environment I grew up in. And, when we heard this was coming, it was great. And now sad. And they've done a lot of renovations to it. And what's the point of doing all the renovations if you know you're all going to close?”
Walmart employee Anneka Ellis said two older customers cried at her.
“They said they had no way of going to another store,” said Ellis. “They live in the neighborhood, and I get it… This is their neighborhood store, and they need it,” says Ellis. “This is sad. I've been here for nine months, and now what am I supposed to do with such late notice?”
Walmart still has stores in Chicago. But his legacy is tied to jockeying for presence on the South and West Side and energizing a labor movement that has been opposed.
“Walmart's entry into Chicago and their low-wage, big-way way of doing business has impacted our policy agenda,” said Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
In 2006, the Chicago City Council defied Mayor Richard Daley by passing a major ordinance that increased employee pay. In 2009, other labor groups pushed even higher wages and health care. Even after smaller shops opened in town — like the one that closed in Lake View — local and national organizers stuck with it Walmart for better payments.
“The fight with Walmart helped us build the foundation for higher minimum wages, getting sick leave, predictive scheduling — all of those kinds of things flowed out of the initial fight with Walmart,” said Reiter.