Shoppers exit a Wal-Mart store in San Marcos , Calif. The world's largest retailer blocked a proposed ban of its superstores in Contra Costa County, Calif., but lost a vote that could allow it to open another store in San Marcos. It has faced strong opposition in California to its strong plans for expansion.
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updated 3/7/2004 7:01:42 PM ET 2004-03-08T00:01:42

Wal-Mart has a big target on its back, and it's not from the competition.

The world's largest retailer has faced strident opposition nationwide over its push to open Supercenters, which span nearly twice the square footage of a typical Wal-Mart and sell groceries alongside other bargain fare.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants to open 40 Supercenters in California over the next few years, and is taking its plans directly to voters in a state of 35 million people -- representing the last major untapped market for the behemoth stores.

The lobbying effort paid off in Contra Costa County, a rapidly growing San Francisco suburb of about 1 million people that voted last week to allow the big-box stores. And next month, a vote by Inglewood residents could determine whether a Supercenter is built in that Los Angeles suburb.

Wal-Mart's first California Supercenter opened Tuesday in La Quinta, a desert community about 120 miles east of Los Angeles.

Since 1988, Wal-Mart has opened more than 1,500 Supercenters across the country, drawing opposition from a number of communities.

The stores are huge one-stop-shopping centers, incorporating a full supermarket along with the chain's familiar discount inventory. Wal-Mart contends that consumers benefit by saving on groceries while shopping for other discount merchandise.

"When voters are asked whether they want the benefits of Wal-Mart Supercenters, we see time and time again that they say yes," said Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Bentonville-Ark.-based company.

Opponents, however, see a low-wage, low-benefit job mill that will displace better-paying jobs as independent retailers are driven out of business. They also contend the super-sized stores will contribute to suburban sprawl and jammed roadways.

Wal-Mart has a powerful argument, according to Ulysses Yannas, an analyst with Buckman, Buckman & Reid Inc. The company does bring down prices, particularly for food, wherever it opens Supercenters, he said.

"The other thing that does happen is other businesses do come in because of the huge traffic Wal-Mart attracts," Yannas said.

But that doesn't benefit communities in the long run, said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a public policy group that is helping coordinate opposition to the Supercenters.

"There's almost nothing that they do that really helps build communities, except provide low prices but at an enormous cost," she said.

Much of the opposition in California is coming from labor groups that have united on a national scale against Wal-Mart, which has strongly resisted efforts to unionize its employees.

Southern California grocery workers were on strike or locked out for more than four months after three national supermarket operators pushed to cut labor costs to compete against Wal-Mart. The strike ended last weekend with the union ceding to the companies' demand for a separate pay and benefit scale for new hires.

But further progress will depend on whether it can get the public on its side. "Wal-Mart has taken on California as a battleground, that is clear," Janis-Aparicio said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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