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Wal-Mart: Arab-America’s Store

| 06/03/2008 | Reply

As
Arwa Hamad strolls a new Wal-Mart, an eight-foot display of olive oil
stops her in her tracks. “Oh, wow,” she says, marveling at the sight of
so many gallons of Lebanese extra virgin. “We could go through one of
these in a week in my house.” Around the corner, row upon row of gallon
jars of olives—from Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Lebanon—soak in deep hues
of purple, red and green. “Look at the size of these olives,” says the
stay-at-home mother of three and native of Yemen. Hamad, 34, has
shopped at Wal-Mart before, but never one like this. She is overcome
with nostalgia as she spots Nido powdered milk and Al Haloub Cow,
canned meat she calls the “Arabic Spam.” “My father loves this,” she
says. “People from war-torn countries, this is what you lived on when
you couldn’t go out of the house to shop.” This Wal-Mart, though, isn’t
in a war zone. It’s in Dearborn, Mich., home to nearly a half-million
Arab-Americans, the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle
East.

As
America changes, so does the store where America shops. In Dearborn
this week, the world’s largest retailer opens a store like no other
among its 3,500 U.S. outlets. Walk through the front door of the
200,000-square-foot super center and instead of rows of checkout
counters, you find a scene akin to a farmers market in Beirut.
Twenty-two tables are stacked high with fresh produce like kusa and batenjan,
squash and eggplant used in Middle Eastern dishes. Rimming the produce
department are shelves filled with Arab favorites like mango juice from
Egypt and vine leaves from Turkey used to make mehshi, or
stuffed grape leaves. A walled-off section of the butcher case is
devoted to Halal meats, slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law
(when a Wal-Mart manager noticed the pork section was too prominent he
ordered it moved, since Muslims don’t eat pork). In the freezer case,
you’ll find frozen falafel. You can also pick up a CD from Lebanese pop
singer Ragheb Alama or buy Muslim greeting cards.

Wal-Mart’s
Arab-American emporium provides a preview of the retail giant’s latest
strategy to boost business as it reaches the saturation point in its
American expansion. Over the past two years, Wal-Mart has tested its
“store of the community”: it has stocked stores in Chicago and Atlanta
with products aimed at African-Americans and set up a hitching post at
an Ohio store near a large Amish community. The Dearborn store, though,
is the most extreme example of the concept. Wal-Mart offers its
standard fare, plus 550 items targeted at Middle Eastern shoppers. “In
the past, Wal-Mart has been pretty cookie-cutter when it comes to
merchandise,” says Dearborn store manager Bill Bartell. “But this time,
we really got to know the community. We’re blazing a trail here.”

Typically
when Wal-Mart comes to town, it drops its big-box store on the
community with a thud. Then it rolls out rock-bottom prices that
undercut local merchants, who often wither and die. That Bigfooting has
led to passionate community opposition in many markets, including
suburban Detroit, where it opened its first super center just a year
ago to protests over plans to stay open 24 hours (Wal-Mart backed down
to 18 hours a day).

To
fit into this bastion of ethnic tradition, Wal-Mart started two years
ago to meet with imams and moms, conducting focus groups at Middle
Eastern restaurants. Wal-Mart learned the community wasn’t as concerned
about seeing Arabic-language signs as they were with dealing with
Arabic-speaking staff. So Bartell hired about 35 Arabic speakers,
including Suehaila Amen, a local middle-school teacher who is providing
ethnic-sensitivity training to the 650 employees. He also learned not
to bother stocking traditional Muslim clothing, like the headscarf, or hijab,
Amen wears. “The community told us, ‘I would not feel comfortable
coming to Wal-Mart to buy my hijab’,” says assistant store manager
Jordan Berke. “We’re not here to overstep our bounds.”

Despite
the sensitive sell, local shopkeepers still worry about Wal-Mart.
“There is a fear factor in the business community,” says Osama Siblani,
publisher of Dearborn’s Arab American News. To allay those fears,
Wal-Mart is making an extraordinary promise: it will not undercut the
prices of the small local merchants (though it will still go after
Kroger). The insular company even agreed to be scrutinized by a
“community advisory board” made up of local Arab-American leaders to
ensure it isn’t harming the mom-and-pop shops. One example: Wal-Mart
agreed to charge one dime more than local grocers for a six-pack of
pita bread.

Arwa
Hamad says her devotion to Dearborn’s Muslim merchants doesn’t simply
rest on one thin dime. After all, when her husband goes to their Arab
butcher, he buys in bulk. “It’s hard to get half a lamb at Wal-Mart,”
she says. And yet, the more she wanders the aisles, the more she likes.
There are the Turkish sweets and dried dates her kids love, and the
Nescafé coffee she adores. “This brings back memories from home,” she
says. “I’ll never forget Mustafa’s corner store, but as soon as this
place opens, I’m coming here with my checkbook.” Going native just
might be the next way Wal-Mart wins.

Category: Retail, The Americas

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