Wal-Mart at Woodland Hills: Good or Bad?
By NANCY K. OWENS
CHANGE COMING: Wal-Mart will build a supercenter in 2006 in the area of the old Cinema Theater and Service Merchandise store just north of Woodland Hills Mall near East 71st Street and South Memorial Drive.
GTR Newspapers photo
Progress is continuing on the opening of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at East 68th Street and South Memorial Drive according to Ryan Horn, community affairs manager of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Bentonville, Ark. The Supercenter is projected to open in the latter half of 2006 and will be just north of Woodland Hills Mall and construction should start soon.
Woodland Hills Mall has been a primary shopping destination in southeast Tulsa since its opening in the 1970s. The opening of a Wal-Mart Supercenter will certainly impact the economic activity in the area. As has been the case in the past with new Wal-Mart locations, there are questions about the benefits and potential disadvantages to existing area merchants.
Woodland Hills Mall has more than 80 stores offering a variety of products ranging from clothing, shoes, and jewelry to electronics, music and bed and bath items. In addition to providing similar products at discount prices, Wal-Mart offers many competing items found in the mall and surrounding stores.
In the past, Wal-Mart has been accused of “taking over the area” and driving small merchants out of business, particularly in smaller towns.
A trip to Woodland Hills Mall to interview shoppers about the soon-to-be Wal-Mart was revealing. A broad cross-section of shoppers hailing from Broken Arrow, Bristow, Cleveland, Muskogee, Checotah and of course, Tulsa offered interesting insights.
The general consensus of several Broken Arrow residents was, “It doesn’t really matter one way or the other to us. We’re from Broken Arrow and we have our own Wal-Mart there. We live near it so we go there all the time.”
Two elderly women approached next are vehement in their opinions. They do not mince words, “I think it’s bad,” the first says. “I’m from Muskogee. Wal-Mart has hurt a lot of business in Muskogee. It’s taken over and driven a grocery store out of business!” Her friend, from Checotah, is no less critical. “Wal-Mart is cheap, but that depends on which one you shop at. When Sam Walton had it, it was a good company. Now it is a greed company just like all the other big companies. Also, when I come to this part of Tulsa the first thing I notice is all the traffic. This Wal-Mart is just going to create a lot more congestion. The dedicated Wal-Mart people will have to come to this Wal-Mart at 2 a.m. to avoid traffic. It will be the downfall of this area of Tulsa.”
A couple of teenage girls, sitting on a bench taking a break from shopping, offer an insight on behalf of the younger generation. “We’re from Bristow,” the brunette says. “Most people do their shopping at Wal-Mart there because it’s the only place to get everything.” Her friend adds, “We like Wal-Mart, but we come to Woodland Hills once a month for the mall experience. It’s different and we can get stuff here that we can’t in Bristow.”
The next point of view comes from a well-dressed middle-aged woman. She discusses the issue while lunching on her Asian food. “I come to Woodland a lot. I grew up here but I live in Cleveland, Oklahoma now. I drive to Tulsa once a week and usually come to Woodland or the Promenade.” When asked about the future Wal-Mart going up across the street she answers with equanimity, “They are building a Wal-Mart in Cleveland and the general feeling is positive. I think most people are happy because it will offer groceries. No one likes our grocery store that much. We had our own store and Homeland bought it and jacked up the prices. The Supercenter in Cleveland will have a grocery with just as many products and lower prices.”
The next bit of information she discloses is curious. “I’ll tell you something about how Wal-Mart really makes its money. According to my son who knows a lot about business, Wal-Mart makes its big money in real-estate development. When they move into an area the first thing they look at is the sewer lines and power and utilities service. They build their stores where this stuff is already established. What they do is build the store knowing that they might have to close it. If they close it they can sell the land at huge profits for real-estate development.”
This alleged hidden strategy did not influence her overall opinion, however. “Wal-Mart has done really well. Most people resent it when others do really well, but it’s the American way. Work hard and do well. My dad hates Wal-Mart because he thinks it is killing small business. He misses the good old days. It has closed that way of life for him. I like it though. It’s cheap and convenient.”
A busy young mother, holding her three-month old twins and keeping an eye on her three year old at the indoor play area, is thankful for Wal-Mart. “I don’t care what anyone else says. Look at me! I’ve got a toddler and infant twin boys. When I can’t get a sitter, going to the grocery store is a monumental thing for me. I go to Wal-Mart and Sam’s because I can get everything in one place in large quantities.”
Despite her loyalty to Wal-Mart, her opinion about merchant competition is the same as the others, “I can understand why people are concerned about Wal-Mart putting smaller stores out of business but it doesn’t change my opinion. Being able to shop at Wal-Mart and Sam’s saves my sanity!”
When asked about whether the new Wal-Mart would affect their shopping at Woodland, the shoppers’ response is consistently neutral. “No,” they say, “the mall experience is different.”
Horn shares the opinion that Wal-Mart and malls offer two distinctly different experiences. “People come to Wal-Mart for different reasons than they would a department store, a specialized store or a mall. Overall, our products satisfy the daily household needs of our customers. Malls, department stores and specialty shops satisfy other demands.”
Horn responds to accusations that Wal-Mart competes others out of business. “Wal-Mart does not directly compete with other merchants. This is not to say that we don’t have competition. We compete with grocery stores and discount retail stores like Target. Our competitive advantage is convenience, price, location and 24-hour availability.”
When asked about the economic impact that the new Wal-Mart will have on the area, Horn replies, “What we typically see when we open a Supercenter is an increase in retail activity in the area. Supercenters offer a lot of day-to-day items. What happens is customers come more frequently to the area to buy their day-to-day items and end up doing additional shopping at the surrounding stores.”
Mike Parrish, president of Parrish Realty in Tulsa, agrees. “I think the new Wal-Mart is a real positive to the area. It will serve the general needs of consumers very well. I consider it to be an upgrade to the area, which is in need of re-development.”
Concerning increased traffic congestion in the area, Horn says, “Eventually, some business or businesses would open in that space. Wal-Mart offers shoppers the convenience of 24-hour shopping. If anything, this will help to alleviate the burden of increased traffic. Shoppers won’t be forced to do all of their shopping during regular business hours.”
When asked about the theory concerning the bulk of Wal-Mart’s profits coming from real estate development, Horn pauses and then replies, “That is the strangest story about Wal-Mart I have heard yet. I can assure you, we are strictly in the business of discount retail. We do our best to satisfy our customers and do whatever we can to improve the local economy when we open a store.”
By all accounts, Wal-Mart is the greatest success story in the history of discount retail.
Some people may love Wal-Mart, some people may hate it and some may maintain a “love-hate relationship” with the ubiquitous discount chain. Love it or hate it, or love and hate it, Wal-Mart has become a permanent fixture in the landscape across America.