Wal-Mart’s decision to speak out against Arkansas’s proposed religious freedom law might have seemed surprising. After all, the retail giant has a decidedly conservative reputation.
But Wal-Mart is changing. The company is increasingly shifting away from its rural roots and expanding in areas where same-sex marriage is much more popular.
In a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas to veto the state’s proposed religious freedom law, which opponents say could allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. (Supporters of the law say it would defend religious rights and wouldn’t protect discrimination.) McMillon said the bill “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not represent the values we proudly uphold.”
Arkansas, where Wal-Mart is based, isn’t exactly a bastion of support for gay rights. Only 36 percent of its residents support same-sex marriage, the smallest share of any state other than Alabama or Mississippi, according to a 2014 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. And Wal-Mart’s stores are heavily concentrated in states where same-sex marriage is unpopular; nearly 80 percent of Wal-Marts are in states where support for same-sex marriage is lower than in the nation as a whole. (Our data on Wal-Mart locations is from AggData.)
But that’s the old Wal-Mart. Much of the chain’s recent growth has been in states where support for same-sex marriage is particularly strong, such as California and New York. (Of course, Wal-Mart continues to expand in states such as Texas that remain relatively opposed to same-sex marriage.)
More significantly, though, Wal-Mart is becoming much more urban. For much of its history, the company specialized in building giant stores in suburban and exurban areas. But with untapped territory running out, the company is increasingly opening smaller stores in or near cities, where support for gay rights tends to be much stronger. More than half of the stores opened since 2008 have been grocery-focused “neighborhood markets,” which are generally in denser areas.
Companies walk a fine line when they try to appeal to new customers without alienating old ones. But on same-sex marriage, at least, that risk may be becoming less acute over time. A majority of Americans now support extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, up from less than a third a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center.
Methodology note: AggData, a market-research company, provided us with Wal-Mart locations, which it scrapes from the company’s Web site. AggData doesn’t collect data on when stores open, but by tracking locations over time, it can identify new stores. The locations are geocoded by latitude and longitude, which we converted to counties. About 2 percent of the locations were lost in the conversion.
We used county population density, from the Census Bureau, as a proxy for urban/rural status. Low-density counties are those in the least dense 25 percent of counties; high-density are in the densest 25 percent; medium-density is everything else.