To hear Mary Francis Matney tell it, Walmart didn’t kill the once-vibrant cluster of shops next to a railroad and a creek in the faded old coal town of Kimball, W.Va. – the disappearance of the mines had pretty well taken care of that already.
But now that Walmart is leaving, too, as one of 154 U.S. stores the company closed in January, the town might be snuffed out for good.
“It makes everyone so downhearted they don’t know what to do,” said Matney, 60, browsing the half-empty shelves of Kimball’s massive Supercenter, leaning on her cart, which contains a dustbuster and door crack insulation. Her husband once worked in the coal mines. Now, the couple lives on what little they get from Medicare and Social Security, and with precious few other options she made the hour-and-a-half trip from her home back in the “hollers” once a month to stock up.
“It’s like we’re a forgotten bunch of people,” said Matney, her long gray hair loosely clipped into a bun. “It’s about all there was to look forward to. If we had to go any further, there ain’t no way.”
She patted the metal shelves full of half-off merchandise affectionately. “I hate seeing it die. I really do,” she said. “You could always find better stuff here.”
And two days later, the store was gone.
Indeed, in a place so diminished, Kimball’s Walmart had risen like a vision of bountiful modernity, stocked with anything one could ever need. And its disappearance is typical of the rest of the stores that Walmart announced it was shedding.
In Raymondville, Texas, the disappearance of tax income from Walmart could force city layoffs. In Oriental, N.C., the arrival of a Walmart Express had been the final straw for a local grocery store, leaving the community with few options for food – also the case in Fairfield, Ala.; and Winnsboro, S.C. A Washington Post analysis of the stores on the closure list shows that they are in relatively lower-income, less-densely-populated census tracts.
For much of Walmart’s history, the narrative about its role in small-town America has been the opposite: Big boxes in the exurbs created black holes, sucking the life out of main streets that couldn’t compete with Walmart’s price power.
The retailer expanded by filling the gaps between its existing stores until it saturated an area, and then creeping out from its Midwestern base into urban markets on the coasts. It moved into groceries and smaller formats to counter the threat of dollar stores, closing facilities occasionally to open larger ones nearby.
The decision to shutter so many stores at once is unprecedented. The cuts include the abandonment of Walmart’s 3-year-old “Express” convenience store pilot, as well as a few planned future locations, such as two sites in Washington’s underserved neighborhoods.
Walmart says financial performance was a primary factor in the closings. But here’s one way in which that may have played out geographically: Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has run an analysis of all the Walmarts in the country and says that 89 percent of those on the closure list were in states with higher-than-average square footage per capita. Walmart said 95 percent of the closures are within 10 miles of another Walmart.
“It’s been part of the way these big retailers have tried to grab market share, by overbuilding markets and creating more retail space than they can support,” Mitchell says. “And, now that we have growing online sales, that overcapacity is going to get quite ugly.”