Tom Keane

Vilification of the market interlopers

The hypocrisy of the outcry over Whole Foods and Walmart

(istockphoto/ Globe Staff illustration)
By Tom Keane
March 5, 2011

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RESIDENTS IN Jamaica Plain are upset at the impending arrival of Whole Foods, fearing moderate-income residents will be unable to afford the grocery store’s high prices. Meanwhile, city pols, most notably Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, are fighting retailing giant Walmart’s efforts to locate somewhere in Boston. They dread the chain’s reputation for dirt-cheap prices. Boston is like Goldilocks: not too expensive, not too cheap — “just right.’’

There is much nonsense and a good amount of hypocrisy in these two stories. Whole Foods will be located at the site of the now-closed Hi-Lo Foods, a Latin-themed market better in memory than it was in reality. Local outrage has a crocodile-tear quality: Hi-Lo is gone because too few shopped there (successful businesses don’t just close), and for good reason: it was a grungy, dirty place that, literally, stank inside.

And Whole Foods’ reputation for high prices is undeserved, a legacy of its origins that is no longer true today. Comparison shop its goods — especially staples bearing its “365 Everyday Value’’ private label — and it holds up quite well. Moreover, there are other grocery stores in the area, including a conventional Stop & Shop (as well as high-end grocers, such as Harvest Co-op Market). It’s not as if residents in the area have no other options. Indeed, the neighborhood is well-known for its leftish leanings. One would think that Whole Foods, promoter of the organic, pesticide-free, locally-sourced lifestyle, would be welcomed.

Meanwhile, the outcry against Walmart tags the company as a destroyer of local retailers. Sam Walton’s genius was developing a purchasing, inventory, and delivery system second to none, one that allowed him to drive down prices and sell goods well below his competitors. Did that push more expensive shops out of business? Undoubtedly. But that battle was fought a long time ago, and Walmart’s systems have since been copied by other major retailers.

The same mayor who resists Walmart because of “what they do to small businesses’’ was delighted at the development in the 1990s of Dorchester’s massive South Bay Center, most of whose denizens — including Target, Staples, Home Depot, and Best Buy — made their money the same way as Walmart: by underpricing the locals. In any event, with at least 12 Walmarts within a 20-mile radius of Boston (including one in adjoining Quincy), residents can — and do — leave to shop. Why not let one locate in, say, moribund Downtown Crossing so that city dwellers can take the T rather than drive?

Yet as silly as the opposition to Whole Foods and Walmart may be, there is something deeper at play that deserves thought. Both stores are markers of change, a passing of one world to the next.

In the case of Jamaica Plain, the arrival of Whole Foods boldly declares an uncomfortable but mostly unadmitted truth: the place has become gentrified. The gentrification process occurs when upper-income — and typically white — folks move into a lower-income — and typically non-white — area. For a while the various groups co-exist, creating a chaotic but also exhilarating mixture of races, origins, languages, and income classes. But it doesn’t last forever. Wealth attracts wealth, and rising home values soon make the neighborhood unaffordable for those with lower incomes. JP hasn’t been able to escape that dynamic. As long as there continued to be stores such as Hi-Lo, a showpiece of grittiness, it was possible to pretend gentrification wasn’t happening — until, that is, Whole Foods showed up.

In its own way, Walmart is also a marker of change. There’s something cozy and warm about the neighborhood shopkeeper (a fact that Venezuela’s Citgo, bragging about its “locally owned’’ gas stations, knows well). It hearkens back to old days, where communities felt tight-knit and we all knew our neighbors. But retailing has changed and, especially in a world of Internet marketers such as Amazon, the local shopkeeper no longer makes economic sense. Most shoppers are driven by price (the exception being those with upper incomes who will pay extra for service and other amenities). Large chains are far better positioned to accommodate that.

Sad, perhaps. Still, it’s likely Whole Foods will open in Jamaica Plain and that Boston someday will have a Walmart. There will be anger, protests and some angst. Eventually we’ll adjust.

Tom Keane ( writes regularly for the Globe.