06 November 2005

Wal-Mart eyes Patzcuaro (Mexico)

Patzcuaro pier

Story by : David Agren

Patzcuaro, Michoacan taxi driver Alfredo Molina Aranjo kicked his cab's tires and showed off the new floor mats he purchased at Wal-Mart for his impeccably-maintained vehicle. He drives 40 miles "every eight days" to Morelia to shop in the mega-chain's Supercenter, preferring the lower prices and wider selection.
"I always find things there that I can't get here," he said.

He naturally welcomed the prospect of Wal-Mart putting one of its Bodega Aurrera outlets in Patzcuaro, a municipality of 66,000, which maintains a colonial atmosphere, largely untouched by neon lights and tacky strip malls.

"It's a good idea to have a supermarket here," he stated, adding many of his fellow cab drivers - and the majority of the town's population - would like to see Wal-Mart set up shop.

"A lot of people like the idea - except for the shop owners."

In a move similar to last year's opening of a Bodega Aurrera outlet in the shadow of the massive Teotihuacan pyramids north of Mexico City in San Juan de Teotihuacan, State of Mexico, Wal-Mart is eyeing another landmark location, which has a unique history and impressive attractions, but lacks a large supermarket.

The proposed development, planned for a vacant lot on the road between the town center and the docks serving Lake Patzcuaro - site of Janitzio Island, a tourist magnet and hotbed of indigenous Purepecha culture - unsettles many local merchants, who fear the discount retailer could drive them out of business and spoil the municipality's character.

"They say they're going to create [150] jobs, but a lot of people are going to be laid off," said Hugo Reyes, who owns a hardware store on Patzcuaro's Plaza Chica.

Unemployment plagues Patzcuaro - and much of Michoacan, which has lost a large portion of its population to migration. Tourism drives the local economy; thousands of visitors descend on the town for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities each fall. Mexico's tourism secretariat declared Patzcuaro a "Pueblo Magico" - mainly due to the town's remarkably preserved architecture and strong Purepecha influence. Cobblestone roads crisscross the town and most of its buildings sport red-tile roofs.

A large number of artisans also populate Patzcuaro.

"Small business, this is how we survive," Reyes explained.

"Patzcuaro has no industry; no big source of income."

But the lure of lower prices in nearby Morelia already pulls sales out of Patzcuaro. Many merchants interviewed - including some who oppose the new Bodega Aurrera outlet - acknowledged buying items at Wal-Mart.

"I sometimes go to Wal-Mart in Morelia," said Magdalena Monroy, a pharmacy owner, who supports the chain's expansion into Patzcuaro.

"Me, I want it, but other people don't because it's going to shrink their sales."

As for her pharmacy's future prospects, she boldly stated, "I'm not afraid of anything."

Guadalupe Alba, a vendor, who sells homemade shawls and traditional clothing in one of Patzcuaro's markets, expressed some trepidation of Wal-Mart's impending arrival.

"It's a foreign company that's taking Mexican money out of the country," she said, adding that she never shops in Wal-Mart's stores.

Arkansas-based Wal-Mart conquered the Mexican market in less than two decades, quickly becoming the nation's largest retailer with 747 outlets, which operate under seven brand names. It also employs more than 100,000 people, making it Mexico's largest private employer. It sold 13 billion dollars worth of merchandise in Mexico last year. According to a recent Publico article, the chain recently unveiled plans to open scaled-down stores, which would compete with abarroteras, small neighborhood mom-and-pop shops.

Wal-Mart counters some of the criticism leveled against it on its Web site, saying the chain buys from local suppliers. A Mural article published last week noted that Wal-Mart agreed to stock 90 products from small and medium-sized Michoacan businesses.

Attempts to obtain comments from a Wal-Mart spokesman in Mexico City were unsuccessful.

Although facing a leviathan-sized company, Alba predicted the proposed store would never open, saying, "We won't allow it," but according to reports, Wal-Mart has already put its plans into motion.

Jorge Molina Garcia, Patzcuaro's director of urban development, said Wal-Mart's plans are being reviewed at the legal level, but declined to offer an opinion on how the store would impact the town. He added that Wal-Mart's plans would have to conform to the Pueblo Magico's strict building regulations, which regulate the architectural style of new buildings.

Alfredo Molina Aranjo, peering through a gap in the wall surrounding the proposed Bodega Aurrera site, scoffed at the suggestion the store would ruin Patzcuaro's colonial charm.

"It would put in a nice building," he said.

"If anything, this would improve things."

Published in the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

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