Three years ago, Oriental (population 900+) had a locally owned grocery store and a pharmacy. Seeing as the next-nearest grocery store is 15 miles from Oriental and the next-nearest pharmacy is 10 miles from Oriental, having local stores was more than convenient. Most of what we needed we could purchase locally, the owners of these stores went out of their way to stock what residents wanted and they employed local residents. They were a part of the town’s fabric.
Enter the Walmart Express experiment, a scaled-down version of its big box stores that included food, gasoline, pharmaceuticals and other stuff. With great fanfare, Walmart Express arrived, giving money to local charities, Walmart vouchers to school teachers and 20 jobs.
Knowing Walmart’s reputation, many local residents resisted, but there was really nothing that could stop Walmart from moving in next to, but not into, Oriental. Walmart was asked to annex, but it did not want to because it would have had to meet provisions of our Growth Management Ordinance such as landscaping its parking lot and adhering to impervious surface regulations. It did offer to pay what it would have had to pay in taxes if Oriental would provide municipal water and police protection.
Two plus years later, Walmart has yet to live up to this promise.
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Walmart’s business plan has always relied on putting local businesses out of business to capture the market, and as expected it worked in Oriental. It took Walmart a year and a half to shut down our local grocery store. Our local pharmacy was up for sale because the proprietor passed away unexpectedly, but with Walmart coming to town, no one was interested in purchasing an independent pharmacy. Oriental’s residents at that point had to rely on Walmart for food and prescription drugs or they had to drive to other towns for these services.
However, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon decided that the Walmart Express stores just didn’t make enough money so he is shutting all of them down. Although he admits “closing stores is never easy,” it had to be done to because “actively managing our portfolio is essential to maintaining a healthy business.”
Seeing as how North Carolina was the focal point of Walmart’s experiment, what has happened to Oriental is likely happening to other small towns across the state.
Walmart’s experiment failed to make it enough money, and we’re left with its mess. We now have no grocery store, no pharmacy, 20 jobs lost from Walmart’s store, more jobs lost when our local grocery store and local pharmacy closed, and boarded-up store fronts.
Some corporations can and do make decisions on more than just the “bottom line,” but Walmart does not. It pretends to be trying to improve its image, but talk is cheap. At its heart, Walmart management cares only about market share and stock options for overpaid executives. This is something to think about when deciding where to shop.
Robert W. Miller, a retired urban forestry professor from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, has lived in Oriental 13 years.