Fall 2004 Table of Contents.
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 Amphibian Advocates, by Charlotte Overby.


When Business Week presented its readers with a report concerning the controversies swirling around the Wal-Mart retail chain, only one university researcher's name appeared. That researcher? Emek Basker, who joined the MU faculty as an assistant professor of economics in 2002, an overachiever only six years removed from a bachelor's degree. Uninterested in publicity and self-effacing to the nth degree, Basker will nevertheless find it difficult to avoid the spotlight, given the nature of her research.

The Business Week account opens in inner-city Los Angeles. Wal-Mart -- which traditionally has avoided large cities since opening its first outlet in 1962 in Rogers, Ark., and first selling stock to the public in 1969 -- has helped revive a neighborhood by siting a store there, filling a space vacated by Macy's department store five years earlier at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. "In short," writer Robert McNatt reports, "Wal-Mart came in -- and nothing bad happened."

When Wal-Mart is involved, though, nothing is simple because of the strong emotions it elicits among its customers and its detractors. Leading up to Basker's research, the Business Week article explains, "Opening a Wal-Mart in neighborhoods underserved by retailers ought to be a no-brainer. Yet opposition to Wal-Mart is fierce. The Los Angeles City Council [is considering] a law that will ban big-box retailers with grocery stores (read: Wal-Mart Supercenters) from poor neighborhoods. There, the issue is Wal-Mart's low wages and benefits. But opposition comes for other reasons, too. ... Inglewood, Calif., voters shot down Wal-Mart when it wanted to circumvent local zoning laws. In Chicago, the issues were wages and land use. In New Orleans, design was a flash point. A new Wal-Mart can indeed gut a small burg's downtown. But urban big-box retailing is so new that economists are just beginning to get a handle on it."

Enter Basker, in the forefront of economists trying to get a handle on the impact of big-box retailers. "A 2003 study by Emek Basker at the University of Missouri found that five years after the opening of Wal-Marts in most markets, there is a small net gain in retail employment in counties where they're located, with a drop of only about one percent in the number of small local businesses," Business Week reports. "That is consistent with what seems to have happened in Baldwin Hills. Basker has also found significant price benefits; retail prices for many goods fall 5 percent to 10 percent."

That one-paragraph summary of Basker's extensive, complex research seemed to position her as a Wal-Mart defender. Basker understood immediately that such an identification with Wal-Mart could make her a lightning rod in the politically charged world of retail. What is it like to be a lightning rod? "Unpleasant," Basker replies. "People from both sides think I'm on the other side."

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