Supervalu and Safeway Helped Bolster Anti-Walmart Protests. So What?

Last Updated Jun 9, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

Is all fair in love -- and retailing? As long as it doesn't break the law, it seems so. Recently, a WSJ investigation revealed that supposedly grassroots opposition to construction of some Walmart (WMT) stores was funded and facilitated by operatives working for its grocery competitors, including Supervalu (SVU) and Safeway (SWY).

While hiring dirty-tricks firm Saint Consulting Group to covertly train activists, phone legislators and otherwise create the appearance of increased local opposition to a Walmart store is a bit underhanded, there's a basic truth here: The grocery chains couldn't pull off this maneuver if there wasn't genuine community opposition to Walmart in the first place. They're not manufacturing local resentment of Walmart out of whole cloth -- they're taking advantage of the fact that many small-town residents want to keep their communities Walmart-free. Also, while it may be sneaky not to be up-front about their involvement, the grocery chains aren't breaking the law. They're protecting their own interests. What business owner doesn't do that? While it's interesting to learn the extent to which the grocery chains have taken this back-door route to limiting their competition, it's not exactly a shocking revelation.

For the most part, Saint's people come into a town with a proposed Walmart and amplify local protests already in progress. In one case, they trained unionized Safeway workers on building-code law so they could oppose a Walmart that threatened their jobs. Bet those workers were grateful for the help, even if it smacked of self-interest from their employer.

Some communities hire their own professional anti-Walmart activists to come train them in protest strategy -- folks such as Al Norman, who's been touring the country teaching those techniques for well more than a decade. Since most protest movements are run on a shoestring, activists are probably grateful for financial support from any quarter, if it'll help accomplish their goals.

This isn't the only tactic grocery chains are using to try to keep Walmart away or limit its sales. In Minnesota, Supervalu filed suit against Walmart in June, charging that Walmart's grocery offerings in one market were too extensive and violated their Cub Foods chain's lease contracts. Walmart has also sued Cub and the developer of another Minnesota mall, when Walmart's plans to add grocery to a store were blocked.

When companies are in a fight for survival, you can expect it to get nasty. This may not be the last revelation we have about what grocery chains are doing behind the scenes to try to hang onto their customers.

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include Allbusiness.com and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.