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A Wal-Mart store in Chicago.

BOB MOON: Wal-Mart unveiled plans today to open nine stores in struggling communities in Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, Arizona, and Virginia. Nearby small businesses will get direct help from Wal-Mart as part of the package. Is that altruism or good business sense? As Steve Tripoli reports from the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk, it may be both.


STEVE TRIPOLI: Wal-Mart Vice Chairman John Menzer was tightly on message today. He'd just come from two big company news conferences touting future stores in depressed parts of Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
JOHN MENZER: It's about working with local business groups, minority- and women-owned business. And helping them grow, and utilize a lot of traffic that we bring to the Wal-Mart.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Industry analyst George Whalin of Retail Management Consultants says Wal-Mart sees a market most retailers sell short.

GEORGE WHALIN: About five years ago, a few supermarket chains began to realize that there was a real opportunity in low-income areas. And I think that ultimately, when Wal-Mart looks at their business, they have to look for places to grow and this is a place to grow.

Whalin says Wal-Mart also has some fence-mending to do when it comes to potential host communities.

WHALIN: It's all part of their campaign to not be the big thugs that they've been for so long. 'Cause they go in and they demand that the community give them all sorts of benefits to opening there, and build the infrastructure around their store and give them tax breaks. And they've really been bullies, frankly, for a good number of years in opening stores.

Is that part of the picture? Wal-Mart's John Menzer is far too media-savvy to touch that one.

MENZER: We continue to move forward very consistently and tell our story.

There might be yet another reason for the timing of this. Wal-Mart reports fourth-quarter results tomorrow. If forecasts hold, its big rival, Target, will have outpaced Wal-Mart for 42 of the past 43 months in one key sales measure. Not a bad reason to create a nice, warm-and-fuzzy vibe the day before.

I'm Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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