By  on April 5, 2006

NEW YORK — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Tuesday that it will open more than 50 stores in economically struggling urban neighborhoods during the next two years, creating 15,000 to 25,000 jobs.

The world's largest retailer, which has come under fire on issues from employee wages and health benefits to driving out so-called mom-and-pop stores, plans a sweeping effort to assist small businesses in what it calls Wal-Mart Jobs and Opportunity Zones. The company said it will offer financial incentives and programs such as producing free radio ads and broadcasting them on its in-store radio network, as well as coaching businesses on how they can thrive with a Wal-Mart in their community.

Chief executive officer H. Lee Scott Jr. announced the initiative in Chicago, where the first zone is to be established on the city's West Side. The Wal-Mart stores will be in neighborhoods with high crime or unemployment rates, on land that is environmentally contaminated or in buildings in need of renovation.

"Wal-Mart has never been afraid to invest in communities that are overlooked by other retailers," Scott said in a written statement. "Where those businesses see difficulty, we see opportunity. This is a commitment to reach beyond our stores, to further engage the community, and to offer an even greater economic boost to people and neighborhoods that need Wal-Mart the most."

The retailer has faced stiff opposition in its efforts to build stores in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. As part of its effort to rebut critics and portray itself as a responsible corporate citizen, Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and aide to Martin Luther King Jr., was recruited in February to be the public face of a group of community leaders that Wal-Mart funds called Working Families for Wal-Mart. He said the company had created entry-level jobs where there were none and had helped revitalize the South.

Wake-Up Wal-Mart, a union-supported group that is pressuring the firm to boost health benefits and wages, called the program a publicity maneuver.

"Wal-Mart's latest and greatest public relations stunt is to try to rebuild a fraction of the very communities and small businesses it has helped destroy," said a Wake-Up Wal-Mart spokesman.The company, which has more than 1.3 million U.S. employees and plans to build as many as 370 stores in the U.S. this year, said the neighborhood effort could generate more than $100 million in state and local taxes.

Wal-Mart also will invest $500,000 in local chambers of commerce to pay for small-business Internet sites and business improvement seminars.

While Scott has vigorously promoted the company's higher-end products, he has noted that 20 percent of Wal-Mart customers don't have bank accounts and need inexpensive goods.

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