Walmart opens 'Neighborhood' store in West Loop

September 21, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The new Walmart is not like the other Walmarts in the Chicago area. The West Loop store at Monroe and Jefferson is geared towards a more urban clientele.

The opening is the culmination of a decade of political work by the giant Walmart corporation to do business in a major American city.

There are two Walmarts in Chicago in low-income, predominantly minority-race communities. The one that opened Wednesday morning is located in a relatively affluent area on the very near West Side.

Jefferson and Monroe is not in an inner-city food desert but rather in the downtown of a major American city.

"There's not a lot of affordable grocery options here in this part of town," said Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo. "It's not a food desert, but there are not a lot of affordable options or necessarily the most healthy options here."

Shoppers were stunned by the lower prices that Walmart claims are the same as those charged in its suburban outlets.

"Living in the city, things are overpriced just because of the convenience factor, so I'll absolutely shop here if things are much less expensive," said a Walmart shopper named Heather.

Eric Royal, 23, left a nearby Jewel supermarket to become one of about 100 new employees at the store.

"Jobs are extremely tough to get right now in this economy," said Royal. "I'm very proud to be working, I'm very proud to be here."

Walmart will not reveal what it pays its workers, but ABC7 learned that most workers at the Walmart earn less than $10 an hour to stock shelves and check out customers.

"They'll earn a completive wage, they'll have access to affordable benefits, and, best of all, they'll have a chance to build a career," said Restivo.

ABC7 also learned that veteran union cashiers at the Dominick's store three blocks away and at the Jewel six blocks up Jefferson earn at least double the wage paid the new Walmart cashiers.

United Food and Commercial Workers spokeswoman Elizabeth Drea said that "the hourly compensation package including retirement, healthcare, holiday/vacation pay and guaranteed hours is much higher for union members."

Eric Royal said he compared the Walmart benefit package to the offerings at other stores.

"I calculated my decision and I decided... against the union," said Royal.

Shoppers expressed mixed feelings about Walmart's relationship with its workers.

"The fact that there is a store here and that they are paying people something in this day and time, that kinda counts for something, you know," said Walmart shopper Jay Punnakal.

"The ethical issue is a concern," said shopper Zak Friedman. "I try to avoid coming as much as possible."

Another Walmart Neighborhood Market is planned in the Wrigleyville neighborhood and another smaller 'Walmart Express' at Chicago and Franklin.

The big question is: Can the unionized stores compete? They have often held their own in suburban and rural locations.

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