WASHINGTON -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to build more than 50 stores in urban areas during the next two years and, sounding more governmental than corporate, said it would also create programs to support small businesses -- including its competitors.
The plan, unveiled yesterday by chief executive H. Lee Scott, would be a major shift for the company, which became the nation's largest retailer by opening rural and suburban stores.
Wal-Mart's arrival in big cities is often controversial, with opponents fearing that the retail giant will drive out small businesses and depress wages. Wal-Mart tacitly acknowledged those concerns yesterday with its plans to create ''jobs and opportunity zones" around 10 of its new urban stores. In those areas, Wal-Mart will hold seminars on how to do business with the company, donate money to chambers of commerce, and feature small businesses in its in-store radio promotions.
A hotly contested Wal-Mart store under construction on Chicago's West Side will anchor the first zone. The remaining nine will be announced in coming months, the company said.
''We see that we can also be better for communities than we have been in the past, if we're willing to stretch ourselves and our resources a little bit," Scott said.
''For some reason, they alone among big box retailers have sort of become evil in part of the public's eye," said David Neumark, an economist with the Public Policy Institute of California.