Business Columns & Blogs

Don’t let Walmart distract us

Tacoma’s tussle over regulating and limiting big-box retailers may be a matter of scaling development to a size appropriate for the affected neighborhood.

Or it could be a bit of municipal protectionism for small, local and independent businesses, while taking a swing at everyone’s favorite retailing villain.

If it’s the latter, the exercise has the feel of sending reinforcements to Gen. Custer – 30 years after the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Even overt targeting of Walmart by the proposed changes has a yesterday’s-news aspect.

Walmart has been blamed for devastating urban retailing districts and the small businesses that populated them. Whatever the validity of that argument (overlooking the fact that consumers choose where to spend their dollars), that scenario largely played out in smaller communities in other parts of the country, at least as far as Walmart was involved.

Northwest downtown retailing districts have been battered the last three decades. Exhibit A: Downtown Tacoma. Walmart didn’t do that. The hollowing out of Tacoma’s downtown was accomplished by Tacoma Mall and Federal Way and Southcenter and hundreds of strip malls, chain stores and first-generation discounters (Kmart et al) and big-box retailers.

Many of which, it turns out, would be the ones most likely to be impacted by the addition of a Walmart in Tacoma. It would take sales not so much from local independents as from Costco, Target, Fred Meyer and other regional chains, like Top Food. Two of those anchor the shopping center right next to the proposed Walmart site.

While Walmart has made for a convenient one-stop-shopping source for allegations of causing whatever ails retailing, it’s rapidly losing its status as favorite enemy. That role is being assumed by online retailers, who are now accused of using the brick-and-mortar stores (both independents and chains) as their showrooms. The online community is led by Amazon, which is, depending on how you define local, a hometown company.

Thus the fight over zoning controls on which retailers will be allowed to move in is really a disagreement about the big players in the sector.

The small, local and independent retailers find themselves in an interesting spot here. They’ve endured decades of having their niches taken over by much larger out-of-town players, starting with groceries and drug stores, then moving into apparel and merchandise retailing.

A few locals and regionals have been able to make it despite the odds and the competition – Metropolitan Market, Top Food and Uwajimaya in the grocery category, Bartell’s in drugstores, McLendon’s in hardware.

Most of the others were forced out of business or figured out a way of avoiding being trampled by the elephants – neighborhood convenience, for example, or finding a niche that was too small or specialized for the big retailers to bother with.

In a few categories, the small and specialized may even outlast the big chains. Local, independent booksellers were hurt by the chains, which in turn were clobbered by online retailers of physical books and now their digital equivalents. It’s still a rough business for the independents, but many of them can at least say they hung on longer than Borders.

Developers and planners, especially those attempting to revitalize urban cores, are increasingly looking to local, independent retailers as a way to set their projects apart. That strategy might work in the seemingly perpetual effort to pump some life into downtown Tacoma.

None of this is to predict the sunset of the age of the national chain store and the dawning of a glorious new age for local independents. Chain stores grew because consumers chose them and because their financial models work. But retailing is not a static industry, and those debating what sort of rules to impose on retail development in Tacoma might be wise to check the calendar, lest they wind up regulating the wrong decade.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at