Even though they’d picked sites that left few soft spots for opponents’ grappling hooks, Walmart didn’t skimp on its first line of defense.
Superlobbyist David Wilmot had been on retainer since early 2006, collecting $290,000 over the next four years to lobby on legislation that affected Walmart’s interests (like D.C.’s 2006 living-wage bill—which passed, but only applies to government-funded jobs). For the new push, the company hired a team including attorney Claude Bailey, who handled legal matters for construction of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Verizon Center, and Nationals stadium. He and consultant Brett Greene, who managed the finances for Gray’s 2006 D.C. Council chairman campaign, worked community meetings, exchanging handshakes with local officials. For on-the-ground assistance in Ward 7, Walmart brought on local Councilmember Yvette Alexander’s campaign manager, Darryl Rose, and her campaign treasurer, Derek Ford. Restivo, Bailey, Walmart senior director of government affairs Bill Thorne, and Terry Lee from public relations firm Walker Marchant all showed up for meetings with councilmembers.
Even though Walmart’s people weren’t asking for tax abatements or zoning changes, it was important to stay in the council’s good graces. Elected officials could still make life difficult by fanning local opposition in ways that spooked developers—or by really pushing for legislation that would place restrictions on bigger retailers. (At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson did introduce a bill requiring big boxes to pay living wages, but it hasn’t gone anywhere.)
In the old days of development, hiring the best lobbyists in town might be enough to pave a company’s way. But given its controversial profile, Walmart also knew that it would have to wage a more public campaign addressing what Restivo calls “reputational issues.”
“We had to correct some misinformation that had gained some traction here, for better or for worse,” he says. “I think not having a store here, and not having people be able to shop the brand, led to a lot of misperceptions about who we are.”
In the middle of last year, Walmart held a couple of focus groups at THEARC in Congress Heights, paying selected residents $100 and a boxed dinner to participate. According to Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell, who was asked to take part, the subject was “economic development.” But all the questions had to do with Walmart. Soon afterward, the company commissioned a poll of 800 District residents, finding 73 percent in favor of “one or more” Walmarts in the District (a Quinnipiac poll found the favorability rating at 57 percent in New York City). Those results, in turn, were printed on mailers that went out across the city, and given as talking points to T-shirted canvassers who are still out touting the benefits of fresh produce and cheap generic drugs.
Walmart also worked the established media. The firm’s national head of government affairs, Leslie Dach, met The Washington Post’s editorial board; a glowing editorial followed. Walmart bought ads everywhere from National Public Radio to The Washington Informer. Favorable clips from places like the extremist website NetRightDaily and Fox News were collected on the company’s D.C.-specific website, which also contains rebuttals to anti-Walmart research, videos of D.C. residents excited about Walmart’s arrival, and specifics touting the virtues of every different District location.
The masterstrokes were subtler: Long-planned branding opportunities that just happened to reach fruition when the company needed to buff its image. In 2008, Walmart underwrote a traveling exhibit on the African-American experience, organized by NPR host Tavis Smiley. It happened to arrive in D.C. this spring. At a black-tie opening reception at the National Geographic Museum, Smiley sang Walmart’s praises to the leading figures in D.C.’s black community. Gray was on hand, posing for snapshots with top corporate execs.
By then, the Walmart logo was everywhere. Walmart sponsored the warm-and-fuzzy “Choosing to Participate” multimedia exhibit at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. On top of $200,000 doled out over the last five years, it pledged $50,000 to the Greater Washington Urban League, whose March gala featured Walmart regional general manager Alex Barron as honorary chair. A $400,000 gift to D.C. Hunger Solutions for fresh school breakfasts led to them pictures of tykes at a Trinidad charter school munching on grapes and bagels. In the biggest coup of all, first lady Michelle Obama appeared on a Walmart-logoed stage to kick off an effort to make their house brands healthier.
The Obama appearance put avowed Walmart opponent Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, over the edge. “Wal-Mart using #ShockDoctrine to enter DC market,” he tweeted. “Their PR machine is amazing – Michelle Obama!? What next Jesus!?”
Around the same time Walmart was cozying up to the first lady, Restivo was also spinning less powerful people. Like me. He’d first asked me to coffee during an early-spring visit to D.C. In late May, he offered me a tour of Walmart’s Alexandria store that opened eight months ago in a former Kmart. After that, he’d occasionally send emails on issues as they arose, or just direct my attention to the small number of “likes” on the union-backed anti-Walmart coalition’s Facebook page.
You can learn a lot about the company on a tour with a Walmart flack. It’s about how the store is set up: “Action Alley,” for example, is the wide aisle that has piles of stuff in the middle, so you can grab it as you walk. It’s how the store is stocked: This location has a larger ethnic food section aimed at Hispanic and Asian populations, but managers figure that wealthier Alexandria residents also shop here, as evidenced by the high demand for ground turkey, which is more expensive than ground beef.
Mostly, though, you learn that today’s Walmart is actually very much like other grocery stores—just cheaper. “I won’t say check out the prices and be self-promotional…” Restivo said, as we began. “But check out the prices.” (Apparently this works: The journalist after me was conservative Washington Examiner columnist David Freddoso, who turned around a column the next day praising Walmart’s “bounty.”)
Maybe the bargains come on the backs of non-union workers and a crushing global supply chain. But when it comes down to it, the firm knows that plenty of shoppers are able to avoid focusing on that bigger picture. Walking into a town like you own it is a lot easier when you have the absolute confidence that market forces are on your side. Despite requiring more front-end effort than the Alexandria store, each of the four District sites stand to make much more money more quickly than a suburban location.
No wonder Walmart wants in to D.C.: With sites on commuter thoroughfares, the chain can expect both to make money from local residents, and from suburbanites heading home. Right now, the commuting works the other way. In two of the community centers that hosted meetings about Walmarts, locals have long organized bus trips for residents to go to suburban locations of the store to stock up on bargain toilet paper. And in the Alexandria store, Restivo pointed out the other end of that phenomenon. Near the end of the tour, he told me to go check out all the D.C. license plates in the parking lot.