It's 8:30 on a weekday morning at the Wal-Mart in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, and the lawn and patio furniture department is crowded. No big sale is going on, just the usual discount prices, yet women and men are cheering.
"Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them," they singsong loudly in unison, sounding like a pep rally at a black college basketball game. "We are the Wal-Mart, mighty, mighty Wal-Mart ..."
The world's largest retailer is flexing its muscle at the polls next week, asking Inglewood voters to allow construction of a megastore, bigger than 17 football fields and stocked full of groceries as well as goods, without benefit of the usual environmental review, traffic studies, public hearings or scrutiny by Los Angeles' city planners and the City Council.
Measure 0-4A is the only item on the ballot for Tuesday's special election, and it's there because Wal-Mart used the state initiative process to put it there. That Wal-Mart way or the highway approach makes the company the big, bad boogeyman in some circles.
But there is not a hint of fear and loathing among these spirited Wal-Mart associates in their blue vests, smocks and shirts, who cheer at the daily meetings held for the morning, evening and overnight staffs. Others are cheering too: shoppers, some neighbors and the local city councilman.
"The store has done a remarkable job of upgrading the mall," says Councilman Bernard Parks, the former police chief who currently represents this corner of Southwest Los Angeles. "The first month that Wal-Mart was open, they brought a million people into the shopping center."
Parks is definitely a booster of this Wal-Mart. His snapshot is on the main bulletin board near a similar shot of Rob Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, chairman of the company's board of directors and another recent visitor to the Baldwin Hills store.
The councilman ticks off the recent improvements at the mall, starting with two new "sit-down restaurants." Mattye's Bistro opened last month in the old Marie Callender's building in the southwest corner of the parking lot, and "by June, we're going to have a Hometown Buffet," he says. "Those kind of businesses are benefiting from the residual effect of folks coming in from the shopping center."
Parks, chairman of the council's budget and finance committee, also believes the city will benefit when tax revenue from Wal-Mart is tallied.
The store's cash registers ring up 40,000 sales a week, according to manager Michael Hardaway, and that count doesn't include looky-loos. Some neighboring merchants welcome the additional foot traffic and the business it brings through their doors -- enough that the Payless Shoe Source is "moving next to them to take advantage of all the traffic," manager Frank Mejia says.
Most competitors hate Wal-Mart because of its low prices -- lower wages, benefits and costs. The company has been charged with forcing employees to work off the clock, discriminating against women, firing employees interested in unionizing and allowing subcontractors to hire illegal immigrants in custodial jobs.
But the criticism is hardly universal. Wal-Mart filled a grating gap in this mall by moving into a five-story building abandoned in the dark of night five years earlier by Macy's -- which left without notifying mall management or its own employees, who found locked doors when they showed up for work. No major anchor wanted in. Nordstrom passed. IKEA needed a closer freeway entrance. Borders -- well, the rumors turned out to be false. Forsaken by the major chains, with the exception of a thriving Sears and a less-than-trendy May Co. (before the merger with Robinsons), the mall soldiered on. Parking spaces were as plentiful as the empty tables in the food court.
Long lines form at cash registers. At lunchtime, shoppers and Wal-Mart associates crowd the food court. Forget about finding a close parking space, and if you bank at OneUnited you'd better bring your walking shoes.
At the daily meeting, nearly 50 associates stand among the lounge chairs and patio tables. Hardaway, the manager, who is African American like most of his employees and wears a Hawaiian shirt in honor of employee appreciation day, announces: "We've got a couple of birthdays in the house this morning. Do y'all want to do the ..." He begins singing the traditional birthday song, only to be shouted down by the associates. "Well, how do you want to do it?" he asks. They shout back, "Fired up." To which their boss responds, "You guys want to get fired up? Let's get fired up!" And everyone loudly sings Stevie Wonder's birthday song.
A new source of jobs
Wal-Mart store No. 2960 opened near Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards in January 2003, bringing 450 new jobs to a community starved for paychecks.