NEW YORK (Reuters) – Wal-Mart Stores Inc Chief Executive Mike Duke got a New York-style welcome from dozens of union activists [including members of Make the Road New York] and street performers opposed to his discount chain’s plans to open a store in the city.
Duke, who was being interviewed on Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal at Manhattan’s Bryant Park Grill, kept his cool as about 60 people, separated from him by the restaurant’s large windows, showed up 20 minutes into the talk to protest the harm they say Wal-Mart does to small businesses and workers.
The protesters, including a brass band and a male Statue of Liberty impersonator leading a rendition of rock group Twisted Sister’s anthem "We’re Not Gonna Take It," at first were so loud that the audience of business people, city officials and journalists had difficulty hearing Duke talk.
"This is probably just a greeting," Duke said, laughing.
Wal-Mart has struggled through seven straight quarters of declining same-store sales in the United States. It is trying to expand into more U.S. cities to help reverse that trend.
It is planning to open more stores in Chicago, and last year said it would open its first stores in Washington, D.C.
New York has been tougher, despite Wal-Mart’s efforts to win over its residents.
,br> Relations reached a nadir in 2007 when Duke’s predecessor as CEO, Lee Scott, told the New York Times: "I don’t care if we are ever here."
Duke sounded more conciliatory.
"We know there are millions of customers here in this great city that don’t really have easy access to a Walmart store, and we’d like to help solve that problem," he said.
Duke said New Yorkers spent $195 million at his stores last year and need to be able to buy inexpensive items during this economic slowdown.
Rival chain Target Corp has been able to set up shop in New York City.
"When Wal-Mart comes into a city, they take it over," said Austin Guest, a spokesman for the group New York Jobs with Justice. "Wal-Mart throws around the kind of heft that Target, as bad as it is, could never hope to."
Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has not found any New York locations yet, Duke said.
"I hope you appreciate this rousing welcome to New York," Wall Street Journal Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray told Duke at the end of the interview.
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