TOPICS > Nation

What happens when Wal-Mart leaves small towns behind

February 20, 2016 at 1:46 PM EDT
The Winnsboro, South Carolina, Wal-Mart Super Center was one of three in the state to shutter its doors last month, joining more than 150 stores nationwide. For 18 years it had served as the town’s center of commercial operations and employed over 160 people. NewsHour's Christopher Booker reports on the impact of Wal-Mart leaving town.


Around 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Wal-Mart store, according to the company. Residents of Winnsboro, South Carolina, however, are no longer part of that overwhelming majority.

In January, as part of a company-wide restructuring, Winnsboro’s Wal-Mart became one of 154 stores that shuttered its doors across the country over the past year. As with the rest of the closures, the town’s employees were given two week’s notice before the store closed for good, rapidly removing what had become a commercial and social center of the small, rural community for the past 18 years.

The debate over Wal-Mart is a heated one. And while the effects of the store coming to town have been seen more frequently, less is known about an area’s economic and social implications of when the big box giant pulls out.

What’s clear in Winnsboro, though, is that Wal-Mart’s exit could potentially transform the town as much as its arrival.

Read the full transcript of this segment below:

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The only way you can see inside the recently closed Winnsboro, South Carolina, Walmart is through a small hole torn into the cloth of the sliding front doors.

The opening offers a surprisingly wide glimpse of a store that once sold almost everything the 35-hundred residents of this town might need.

The quiet, former cotton mill community 30 miles from South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, saw its Walmart open in 1998.

Now, these bare shelves reflect the consequences of a restructuring effort that Walmart described in a press release as “necessary to keep the company strong and positioned for the future.

This winter, Walmart is closing 154 stores in the U.S. and 115 outside the country, about two percent of its stores worldwide.

Despite lowering its sales forecast for the year in the past week, the closures do not signal a company on the brink.  Walmart plans on opening at least 135 new stores in the U.S., including 50 to 60 supercenters like the one it just closed in Winnsboro.

Winnsboro’s Walmart was one of 12 super centers to close across the country this year and as with many of the others closures, Walmart only gave the town two weeks notice before closing the doors, rapidly removing what had become a commercial center of this small, rural community for the past 18 years.

In its closing, Walmart could potentially transform the town as much as when it opened.  Residents say the big box store’s rock bottom pricing made it difficult for the town’s smaller businesses to compete, striking a direct hit on downtown Winnsboro.

In 1998, the town had three grocery stores; today only this Bi-Lo remains. The town once had two department stores; both are now closed.

But this hardware store managed to stay open.  Store manager William Broome has worked here for the past 38 years.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: How did you guys stay in business?

WILLIAM BROOME:  Trimmed, trimmed our inventory to cater to more of what we specialize in, and kind of let them have the non-building material, non-home repair products, and just dealt in things that they didn’t have. And of course, you had to cut some of your staff.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: And now, here we are 18 years later, Walmart’s closed down?

WILLIAM BROOME: It’s a problem that nobody’s dealt with that we know of. Everybody’s had to deal with when they move in, and nobody’s had to really deal with the what do you do when they move out?

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Walmart’s departure presents an opportunity for Broome. He is restocking products the store has not sold in years and probably will hire additional employees.  Despite the unexpected opportunity, broome isn’t celebrating.

WILLIAM BROOME: You feel like they used the town, when they came in, and used you up to, you know, what they could get out of you, and then just pull out and leave on them.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: For independently-owned Price’s Drug,” Walmart’s departure has resulted in a flood of new customers.

CARRIE BAKER: We’ve got a lot more business.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Carrie baker is the pharmacist in charge.

CARRIE BAKER:  I think people panicked at first. And so, we were transferring their prescriptions before Walmart even closed.  And so we’re now trying to fill.  Now that we’ve got the transfers, we’re filling them now. And we’re trying to do our very best.”

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Baker says the store is receiving nearly 150 more orders prescriptions every day, but matching Walmart’s prices is difficult.  Since 2006, Walmart has offered customers prescriptions as low as four dollars for a 30 day supply for some generic drugs.

CARRIE BAKER: We never have offered the four dollar generic plan that they have offered. But we did try to be competitive. And we’ve offered a six dollar plan. We just explained to them that we never could offer it because it costs us much more.

ROGER GADDY:  How you doing buddy? Doing fine?

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Roger Gaddy is a doctor at Fairfield Medical Associates in Winnsboro.  He’s also been the town’s mayor for 11 years, and he worries about the tax implications of the Walmart closure.

ROGER GADDY: We have a one-cent-added sales tax that the citizens voted on about ten years ago, Walmart was probably our biggest contributor of that one cent sales tax, because it was the biggest retail entity we had in the town.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Gaddy says the loss of the total sales tax, previously paid by the Winnsboro Walmart will be substantial.

ROGER GADDY:  Walmart leaving is devastating to the community, but we’ve been here a long time, and we’re gonna be fine without it.  And there may be some benefits of not having a Walmart here.  I would like to think that you would see a revitalization of downtown. You’ll see more people shopping downtown.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: While chamber of commerce president Terry Vickers shares the mayor’s optimism, she says she is still struggling to understand Walmart’s decision.

TERRY VICKERS: The employee meeting that was called on that Thursday morning they thought was gonna be great news about maybe some increases in wage, and unfortunately it was the announcement that the store would close in two weeks.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But at the same time, you were getting reports from the manager that the store was profitable.  Everything seemed fine.

TERRY VICKERS: Right. Well, and there is local profitability, and there is corporate profitability. So unfortunately, he had a profit over last year’s Christmas season, but that still did not get that store to the corporate expectation.

MARIANNE BICKLE: It might be profitable, but it’s not enough.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Marianne Bickle is a University of South Carolina professor in the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sports Management. She says with increasing pressure in the retail space, Walmart has to pay close attention to stores that may not be meeting profit expectations.

MARIANNE BICKLE: By pulling out of Winnsboro, Walmart is saying, “this store, this location is not doing financially what we need it to do.” They’re being responsible to their stakeholders.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Bickle says that stores like Walmart must diversify the ways they reach customers, sometimes closing a brick and mortar store in one area to expand to another or focusing on boosting online sales.

Do you think Walmart owes the community anything?

MARIANNE BICKLE:  They do owe the community. They owe the community honesty. They owe the community forthright communication.  And it would be dishonest to the community to say, “everything is fine.  And we’ll be here a long time.” And then to pull out.  But the bottom line is, they are a business.  And they have to stay in business accordingly.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Walmart says there is no single factor, like profit or location, that determines which stores close and which remain open. In a telephone interview, spokesman Brian Nick told me store closures are rare, and the company is in growth mode.

BRIAN NICK: We don’t typically close stores and we announced these stores at the same time, because, you know, it was part of a very hard portfolio review, and something we needed to do that made sense for the business overall.

Just in January, we opened 69 stores. We’ll continue to open dozens more throughout the year. And, you know, 90 percent of Americans are within 10 miles of a Walmart.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Just five days after announcing the store closures last month, Walmart announced it would raise its U.S. minimum wage to ten dollars an hour and give raises to 1.2 Million of its hourly workers.  Those raises took effect today.

As for the 10-thousand employees laid off nationwide Walmart says it is trying to place them in its other stores. The company says two-thirds of the 160 plus employees in Winnsboro have been transferred to jobs at Walmart stores that are a 30-to-40 minute drive from Winnsboro.

CASANOVA MOORE: It’s a big difference. You can feel the emptiness in Winnsboro.”

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Casanova Moore worked at the Winnsboro Walmart for nearly a year before it closed.

CASANOVA MOORE: It’s a lot of jobs and a lot of us, like, are close to each other.  And like, it was a family.  You know, we were like really a family.  So now that the family is broken up, we all going our separate ways.

NANCY MCCLURKIN: I was born and raised here.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Winnsboro’s Walmart was more than a shopping space; it was a gathering place.

NANCY MCCLURKIN: If you wanted to see anybody. Come to Walmart.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Where retirees Herbert and Nancy McClurkin picked up their prescriptions, shopped for groceries, and caught-up on the latest town gossip.

HERBERT MCCLURKIN:  A big surprise.  Because we been over there early in the week, and our cousin called and said, Walmart’s getting ready to close. It was kinda hard to believe.

NANCY MCCLURKIN: We thought it was a prankster at first. I said, “Walmart’s closing?” That’s the only store we have around here.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: At the Fairfield Central High School basketball game Jimmy Dorsey and Miriam Woodard were trying to understand why wal-mart left.

JIMMY DORSEY: And it was a joyful place.  It was like home or like a church or something.

MIRIAM WOODARD: And I’m praying that something else comes and takes it’s place, because we really need it.

JIMMY DORSEY: I think that the customers deserve to know something  You know?  I spent a lot of money at Walmart.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Besides, helping place employees in other stores, Walmart did leave another parting gift. Its foundation contributed 30-thousand dollars to the town’s economic development effort.

TERRY VICKERS: Were we disappointed that it could not be a lifelong endeavor?  Yes. But you know,  Winnsboro’s been around since 1784 and there is a survival attitude here. And we will survive.