Upscale, gay . . . <nobr>Wal-Mart?</nobr>

A Wal-Mart store sign in Illinois

KAI RYSSDAL: It's not a strike, exactly. But there's a whiff of boycott around Wal-Mart. The discount giant's going to start working with gay and lesbian groups. Wal-Mart's looking for diversity. Customers, employees, suppliers, everybody. Conservative organizations aren't wild about that idea. But retail analysts say it's all part of the business plan. Marketplace's Steve Tripoli has the story.


STEVE TRIPOLI: Groups like the Family Research Council are saying Wal-Mart's new partnership won't sell on Main Street. The spokesman's ominous quote? "I don't think cheap prices on goods from China will be enough to stop a rollback in their customer base."

Analyst Kurt Barnard of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group disagrees.
KURT BARNARD:"The existing base won't care, so long as the prices are still low."

George Whalin is with Retail Management Consultants. He says Wal-Mart's partnership with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce is good business.

Whalin says the retail giant's expansion focus is urban areas and the chain needs urban customers.

GEORGE WHALIN:"They're certainly in more and bigger cities than they've ever been. They'll have a much larger presence in Chicago here in the next few years, in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, in Miami and big cities that have large gay and lesbian populations."

This dovetails with another Wal-Mart goal: more upscale customers. The company's trying to grow business by getting shoppers to spend more per trip. Gays have lots of disposable income. But beyond raw economics George Whalin says Wal-Mart needs to embrace a diverse customer base.

WHALIN:"This Far Right trying to foist their opinions and ideas off on everybody else because they think they're right and everybody else is wrong is just not good for business, and I think Wal-Mart recognizes that."

Wal-Mart signaled this direction in the spring when its stores began selling the gay-themed movie hit "Brokeback Mountain." Conservative protests rolled in then, but the DVDs weren't pulled from the shelves.

I'm Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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