Tom Menino got one thing wrong: Saying no to Walmart.
The next mayor of Boston needs to get it right.
It’s too easy to paint the world’s biggest retailer as the big bad wolf. You’ve read the script: It decimates mom-and-pop businesses, underpays workers, and blights communities.
It is so evil that, according to a recent Globe survey, more mayoral candidates would rather see a casino in the city limits than a Walmart.
Have they been to a Walmart lately? Last I checked, when you give the cashier $50, you get something in return — diapers, milk, bread, your choice.
I concede that shopping there can be addictive. A carton of Minute Maid lemonade is $1 at Walmart versus $1.75 at Stop & Shop. Bargains like that might make me want to visit Walmart every week and double down on necessities. Maybe they should serve free drinks.
Walmart looked at opening a grocery store near Dudley Square a couple of years ago, but Menino feared its rock-bottom prices would drive the little guys out of business. Walmart had also scouted out sites in Downtown Crossing and Dorchester.
The argument against Walmart assumes that City Hall should dictate where residents shop. This isn’t Soviet Russia.
One 2011 study showed that Boston proper has as much as 30 percent fewer supermarkets per person than the national average. Urban areas typically are underserved by grocers because it’s too hard to make money.
City shoppers not only end up paying more for food but have less access to fresh produce. Ever try buying broccoli in a convenience store?
Food prices at Walmart are about 5 to 25 percent lower than other stores, this according to the USDA. The mere presence of Walmart also forces its competitors to drop prices. This is known as free enterprise.
For people who work hard for their money, and by that I mean people who scratch out a living in these neighborhoods, Walmart is a mecca, a place to save as much as to spend.
So let’s look at the two issues that you always hear about. It’s true that when Walmart comes to town, many small businesses can’t compete because their customers go where the bargains are. But while some independents close, others come along to fill the void.
“Walmart causes a reallocation of business,” said Russell Sobel, a professor at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, who has published a paper on the topic. “If you are a small entrepreneur living in a world of Walmarts, you still have opportunities.”
In other cases, Walmart forces competitors to pick up their game and better serve customers.
Let the market play itself out. Competition can make everyone stronger.
Probably the biggest concern about the giant retailer is its impact on wages.
A study by University of Massachusetts Amherst economics professor Arindrajit Dube showed that Walmart’s presence may have depressed the average wages of retail and grocery workers in a state by as much as 10 percent.
In Massachusetts, Walmart says it pays its full-time workers $13.86 an hour, on average. The starting salary, however, is probably a little above the $8-an-hour minimum wage, with workers earning about $9 to $10 an hour, said Dube.
Is there anything that can be done about that?
“Lots of things can be done about it,” said Dube. “You can require a higher wage for big box retail.”
That’s what city officials in Washington are fighting over now, and that’s what the next mayor of Boston should weigh as well.
Mike Ross, the only mayoral hopeful who is willing to consider a Walmart in the city, said he is well aware of the retailer’s bad reputation, but that doesn’t mean the city should shut the door in its face.
“We need to be careful about being overly parochial,” said Ross.
Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said his company is still interested in coming to Boston and is constantly evaluating sites.
“At the end of the day, residents should decide where they shop and work, not city governments,” said Restivo.
New mayor, whoever you are, let Walmart do business here.
There’s a way to bring low prices and decent-paying jobs to city residents who desperately need both.