Wal-Mart backlash

November 17, 1994

President Clinton isn't the only Arkansas product coming in for criticism. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., based in Bentonville, Ark., has been fending off scattered protests in the United States, including several in Maryland, from people who fear the retailer's impact on traffic, land use patterns and small business.

In the face of stiff opposition, the company recently dropped plans to build in Owings Mills as well as several other places across the country. But the protests tend to be sporadic and highly localized, rather than any widespread backlash against this national chain that has grown into the most profilic retailer in the land.

The late Sam Walton, founder of the Arkansas-based chain, was for years noted as the country's wealthiest man. Yet for many Americans, particularly in the populous Northeast, his was an invisible empire. The company made its mark mostly in rural backwaters, where it bled dry the mom-and-pops on Main Street. A few years ago, however, it embarked on a breathless expansion.

Analysts expect the company will leap from $68 billion in sales last year to $87 billion this year, and to reach $125 billion by 2000. By then, some say, Wal-Mart will account for 20 cents of every dollar spent on general merchandise, apparel and furniture in the U.S. The company already is said to employ more people than the Big Three automakers combined, and is making a push overseas.

Increasingly, people are pushing back. New Englanders have bit the company's hand as it has reached into that region. The "Doonesbury" comic strip has made the retailer the butt of its bitter satire. And the firm's plans to build in Chestertown have been a major political issue on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Wal-Mart hasn't posed a major concern in the Baltimore-Washington region, however. Its impact has mostly been on the other large variety stores, in part because malls and interstate highways had long since dealt decimating blows to many traditional village centers.

But some of the changes in daily life that Wal-Mart wrought in Smalltown U.S.A. may yet be felt in the urban corridors. The company is about to go after the grocery business on a national scale. Soon, Wal-Marts will be 10 minutes apart all around the Baltimore Beltway. Many consumers would tell you the stores have been a blessing. But concern lingers that changes wrought in small-town America by Wal-Mart could still happen here.

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