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By Barney Jopson

April 27, 2011

Mike Duke, Walmart’s chief executive, was targeted by protesters as he gave his strongest signal yet of the company’s renewed desire to open stores in New York, in spite of stiff political opposition.

Mr Duke, head of the world’s largest retailer by sales, said: “We know there are millions of customers here in this great city that don’t have easy access to a Walmart store. We would like to help solve that problem.”

But within minutes of his comments at a New York breakfast on Wednesday, the venue was besieged by demonstrators.

They accused the retailer of mistreating its workers and endangering small businesses, chanting: “Walmart cheats, Walmart hates, Walmart discriminates.”

Walmart rejects such charges, but the pre-planned demonstration underscored the political challenges in the way of the retailer’s strategy.

Walmart is seeking to revive the growth performance of its US business by moving beyond “big box” stores to open smaller outlets in large cities. New York, America’s biggest urban retail market, stands out as the final frontier.

The retailer has saturated suburban and rural areas with its low-price Supercenter stores, but stores open at least a year have produced seven consecutive quarters of declining sales.

“We are very, very interested in New York,” Mr Duke said at an event organised by the Wall Street Journal. But he added: “There are lots of steps in the process here.”

Pointing to pent-up demand for Walmart among the city’s consumers, he said the company’s analysis of credit card transactions showed that last year, New Yorkers had spent $195m at Walmart stores outside the city.

Four years ago, Mr Duke’s predecessor expressed exasperation over the cost and difficulty of entering New York and said: “I don’t care if we are ever here.” Walmart has warmed to the city more recently and launched a campaign of lobbying and advertising to promote the benefits of its low prices, job creation and sales tax payments.

But it continues to face fierce opposition led by unions and politicians. As Mr Duke spoke, protesters outside the window behind him tried to drown him out with trumpets, drums and a chorus of “Mr Walmart – who do you think you are?”

Maritza Silva-Farrell, an activist who helped organise the demonstration, said: “Walmart does not have the values of New Yorkers … We want to send a message loud and clear that they don’t belong and we will do everything we can to stop them.”

Ms Silva-Farrell works for Walmart Free NYC, a group that represents some New York workers, residents and small business owners.

She said Walmart was not an “inclusive” employer and claimed that in New York it would kill off small retailers and refuse to build ties with local companies outside its own finely tuned logistics systems.

To read the full original article, visit the Financial Times.