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Wal-Mart Killing off Grocery Competitors & Driving Down Workers Wages

From Agribusiness Examiner #295 10/19/03
By Al Krebs <avkrebs@earthlink.net>

WAL-MART CONTINUES TO CREATE
CHAOS IN RETAIL FOOD BUSINESS AFTER
DRIVING NEARLY TWO DOZEN NATIONAL
SUPERMARKET CHAINS INTO BANKRUPTCY

STEVEN GREENHOUSE, NEW YORK TIMES:

In February Wal-Mart will open its first grocery supercenter in California, offering everything from tires to prime meats, and that could be a blessing for middle-class consumers. The reason is simple: Wal-Mart's prices are 14% lower than its competitors', according to a study by the investment bank UBS Warburg.

But not everyone is rejoicing about Wal-Mart's five-year plan to open 40
supercenters in California, stores combining general merchandise and
groceries that are expected to gobble up $3.2 billion in sales. California's
three largest supermarket chains, Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons, are scared,
and so are tens of thousands of supermarket workers whose union contracts
have put them solidly in the middle class.

The three grocers' fears of fierce competition from Wal-Mart and their
related drive to cut costs are widely seen as the main reason behind the
week-old strike by 70,000 workers at 859 supermarkets in Southern California.

Wal-Mart has already helped push more than two dozen national supermarket
chains into bankruptcy over the past decade. That list includes names like
Grand Union; Bruno's, once Alabama's largest supermarket chain; and Homeland
Stores, formerly Oklahoma's largest.

And unionized supermarket workers fear that Wal-Mart's invasion will oust
them from the middle class by pulling down their wages and benefits, which,
taken together, are more than 50% higher than those of Wal-Mart workers. At
Wal-Mart, the average wage is about $8.50 an hour, compared with $13 at
unionized supermarkets.

"Wal-Mart's superstores are going to have a devastating impact on
California's supermarkets," said Burt Flickinger III, a retailing
consultant, noting that union wages and prices are higher in California than
in most of the country.

Eager to stay competitive against Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Vons (owned by
Safeway) and Ralphs (owned by Kroger) have demanded a two-year wage freeze
for current workers, a lower pay scale for new hires and greater employee
contributions for health coverage. Those employees now pay no health
insurance premiums, while Wal-Mart employees often must pay premiums of $200
a month and deductibles of up to $1,000 a year, if they qualify.

With Wal-Mart in mind, supermarkets have engaged in tough bargaining across
the country. That has led to a 12-day-old strike by 10,000 supermarket
workers in Missouri and a six-day-old strike by 3,000 workers at 44 Krogers
in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

It is hard to underestimate the power of Wal-Mart. It has 1.4 million
employees and had $245 billion in revenues last year, equaling 2.5 percent
of the gross domestic product. Each week 138 million shoppers visit
Wal-Mart's 4,750 stores. Last year, 82 percent of American households bought
at least one item there.

Wal-Mart sells 32 percent of the nation's disposable diapers, and it is the
largest customer for Walt Disney and Procter & Gamble. It has singlehandedly
persuaded music companies to issue sanitized versions of CD's. Its 1,397
supercenters account for 19% of the nation's grocery sales, making it the
largest grocery retailer.

With Wal-Mart planning 1,000 more supercenters in the next five years,
Retail Forward, a consulting firm, estimates that Wal-Mart's grocery and
drug sales will double to $162 billion, giving it 35% of the domestic food
market and 25% of the drug market.

When Wal-Mart goes like gangbusters into an area, as it plans to do in
California, competitors often feel panic. In Dallas, its share of the
grocery market has soared to 16.4 percent from 8.5 percent in the past two
years, according to TradeDimensions International.

"We have been in business for 68 years, and in that period of time, we have
seen dozens of competitors come and go," said Jack Brown, president of
Stater Brothers, a supermarket chain in the Orange County and San Diego
areas. "However, Southern California has never seen as big a competitive
threat as the Wal-Mart supercenter."

Many factors explain Wal-Mart's ability to charge low prices, including
economies of scale, the pressures it puts on suppliers and its embrace of
imports --- it imported $12 billion in goods from China last year, one-tenth
of American imports from China.

Another big factor is Wal-Mart's relatively low wages. Its sales clerks
average about $8.50 an hour, or about $14,000 a year, while the poverty line
for a family of three is $15,060. In California, the unionized stockers and
clerks average $17.90 an hour after two years on the job. Mr. Flickinger
said wages and benefits for Wal-Mart's full-time workers average $10 to $14
per hour less than for unionized supermarket workers.

"The strike out here involves workers who enjoy decent wages, vacations and
health benefits," said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research
and Education at the University of California at Los Angeles. "These things
were taken for granted, they made them part of the middle class, but now
these workers are threatened with having
these things taken away."

A big savings for Wal-Mart comes in health care, where Wal-Mart pays 30%
less for coverage for each insured worker than the industry average. An
estimated 40% of employees are not covered by its health plan because many
cannot afford the premiums or have not worked at Wal-Mart long enough to
qualify.

"What this means is, if I'm a Wal-Mart employee and I hurt my hand and go to
the emergency room, who's going to pay for it? The taxpayer is," said Mr.
Brown, the supermarket executive. "Wal-Mart's fringe benefits are being paid
by taxpayers."

Wal-Mart officials say that their expansion will be a boon for California
consumers and that their wages and benefits are competitive. Why else, they
ask, would 600,000 workers take jobs at Wal-Mart each year?

Greg Denier, chief spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers,
said the fear of Wal-Mart's supercenters is the main cause for the
California strike, but he argued that the supermarkets have exaggerated the
threat as a strategy to squeeze their workers.

"They keep saying they have to do this because Wal-Mart is bringing
supercenters to California," he said, "but it's part of a national program
to ratchet down wages and benefits."

Yet Wall Street analysts and retailing consultants say the California
supermarkets, like others across the country, risk being stomped by
Wal-Mart.


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