Wal-Mart's Move Into Urban Markets Reaches a New Level

Times Staff Writer

Expanding its reach into urban markets, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. opened the doors of a new store Wednesday at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, taking the place of a Macy's that closed nearly four years ago.

Eager customers, who lined up for the store's 7:30 a.m. opening, said the three-story Wal-Mart would be a welcome addition to an area that has long suffered from a lack of discount shopping.

"We always felt like we had to go out of our neighborhood to shop -- like our neighborhood wasn't good enough for a good store," said Karen Weller, 40, a nurse who lives and works in the area. "I couldn't wait until this opened. The economy is so bad, people need bargains."

The new store is the first three-level Wal-Mart in the country, and the chain's third store in the city of Los Angeles. Others are in Panorama City and Northridge. Although Wal-Mart got its start in small towns, the company is making a big push into cities. The Crenshaw Plaza store is located in an area with a large base of African American and Latino customers.

"This is a market that is not a wasteland, this is an emerging market," said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who as a member of the Los Angeles City Council encouraged the company to open in the area. "We're saying hello to the future and hello to Wal-Mart."

As shoppers pushed carts laden with everything from clothing to televisions, several said they weren't worried about Wal-Mart's effect on local merchants. Wal-Mart, with annual sales of more than $217 billion for the fiscal year ended January 2002, has been accused of putting small retailers out of business by undercutting their prices. But Wal-Mart says its customer traffic helps nearby merchants.

John Peacock, a 78-year-old apartment building owner from nearby View Park, said what matters to him are discount prices. "A lot of people in Crenshaw are not making a lot of money and they need the lower prices here," Peacock said. "Some of the small businesses overcharge people, so it wouldn't bother me if some of those stores went out."

In addition to new stores such as the one at Crenshaw Plaza, Wal-Mart is planning to open 40 supercenter stores in California in the next four to six years. The supercenters, which have a full-service supermarket in addition to general merchandise, are being fought by labor unions and others who say Wal-Mart can offer low prices because it underpays its workforce.

Wal-Mart says its compensation package is competitive, especially when factors such as advancement opportunities are taken into account.

The chance to move up the ranks was a draw for Sharie Beck, 33, a cashier from Inglewood who was hired at $7.75 an hour a few weeks before opening day. "It's less than what I'm used to, but it's a starting point. I plan to advance in the company," she said.

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