As Wal-Mart Opening Nears, Division Remains in Chinatown

Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market store manager Kenney Tran prepares for the opening of the Downtown store. It could come as soon as this week. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Downtown workers and residents have recently welcomed a range of grocery options

Urban Radish, a small upscale market, was embraced when it debuted in July in the Arts District. There was also an eager reception for a 24,000-square-foot Smart & Final Extra that opened the same month in South Park. The announcement that Whole Foods will bring a 42,000-square-foot store to Downtown has been the most heralded retail move of the year. 

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Things have been different for Downtown’s newest grocer. As a 33,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market prepares to open, possibly this week, on the ground floor of Grand Plaza, a 302-unit senior housing complex at 701 W. Cesar Chavez Ave., reaction remains mixed.

One thing is certain, however: The nation’s largest grocer thinks it will find an audience.

“We expect the store to be very successful,” said Rachel Wall, a senior manager of community affairs for the Bentonville-Ark.-based company. “We offer a number of conveniences in an area that has long been underserved.” 

The market will fill a space that has been empty since the building opened in 1991. It is catty-corner from the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts and includes 140 parking spots, as well as loading docks that can handle delivery trucks. 

The store employs 65 people and sells typical grocery goods such as canned food, produce, dairy items and household supplies and beauty products. A pharmacy is part of the project.

“You’ll find produce, organic products, a lot of healthy options,” said Kenney Tran, the store manager. “We’ll have a lot of the staple items people shop for.”

Going Small

The Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market brand was created by the company in 1998 to offer mostly grocery items in spaces smaller than the typical Wal-Mart superstore, which averages about 150,000 square feet. 

The Downtown store will have a large meat section and a bakery with bread and other goods baked on-site daily. There is an emphasis on Latino-oriented products such as sweetbreads and bollios, a version of baguettes. Several signs in the store are in English and Spanish. 

There are also prepared meals such as rotisserie chicken and sandwiches. Although only a fraction of the size of a superstore, online shoppers can order any item from a larger Wal-Mart and have it delivered free of charge to the Downtown market, where it can be picked up. 

The Downtown Wal-Mart will be the second store in the city, following one in the San Fernando Valley. Currently there are 290 Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets in the United States, including 24 in California. 

According to the trade publication Supermarket News, Wal-Mart is the nation’s top grocer and generates about $170 billion in annual sales. Mark Hamstra, the journal’s retail editor who follows the chain, said typical customers for a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market tend to be lower to middle-income shoppers.

“They tend to do very well in those stores,” said Hamstra. 

According to the latest Downtown Los Angeles Demographic Study, released by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District in 2011, the median household income in Downtown is $86,300. Although the store will draw residents from nearby communities such as Echo Park and Angeleno Heights, Hamstra said it could appeal as well to relatively affluent Downtown inhabitants. 

“They’ll do some selective shopping at Wal-Mart,” he said. “I think Wal-Mart is really good at picking off those types of shoppers.”

Wall said that, even with the deluge of Downtown grocery options, she expects the store to carve out a niche.

“We know there are other stores opening nearby, but I think Downtown customers and customers in this general area have been underserved when it comes to a traditional grocery store, and that’s what we’re looking to provide,” she said.

Counter Action

The path to opening has been fraught with potholes. Although the site was always intended to hold a grocery store, initial reports that Wal-Mart would open prompted concerns that its arrival would put nearby mom-and-pop shops out of business. Others protested the store’s non-unionized labor practices. 

In March 2012, then-First District City Councilman Ed Reyes introduced a motion aimed at stopping Wal-Mart from opening in Chinatown. However, store officials had outfoxed the city by securing its permits the day before the council vote.

Aiha Nguyen, senior research policy analyst for the Downtown-based Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, one of the groups that has protested the store, said LAANE is disappointed that Wal-Mart is set to open.

“It’s going to put nearby stores in jeopardy,” she said, adding that “food access and other options will be lost.” 

Others disagree.

“I think that not only Chinatown, but the greater Downtown area has needed grocery store options and this is a perfect spot for it,” said George Yu, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District. “There’s no reason I can’t shop at Target, Urban Radish and Wal-Mart. Customers from across the board will be coming to this market.”

Yu said the Wal-Mart is having a positive effect on the area even before it opens. 

For years, the only other business on the ground floor of the building was a Subway restaurant. About two months ago, a new Mexican restaurant opened next to Subway. A Papa John’s Pizza restaurant is set to arrive soon.

richard@downtownnews.com.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013