Camping in the lot is part of Walmart’s culture. That tent city in Chico is something else.

November 21, 2018

By Dale Kasler | The Sacramento Bee

It’s been part of Walmart’s culture for decades: Travelers in recreational vehicles are welcome to stay overnight in the parking lot.

“Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers,” the retailer says on its website. None other than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has become something of a Walmart folk hero for his frequent stays in store parking lots with his wife Ginni.

But an entire tent city full of disaster evacuees? That’s put Walmart in an uncomfortable bind.

Early Wednesday, the so-called “Wallywood” tent city that sprung up in Chico after the Camp Fire catastrophe began thinning out, hours after Walmart posted signs asking people to leave. Still, about 50 tents remained in the lot, even as rain began falling.

Some public relations experts said Wednesday the retailer may have had little choice but to get people to leave, in part because of the possibility that someone could get seriously hurt camping in the lot.

“I’d be giving a lot of thought to security because this can potentially get very ugly and you don’t want a situation where the narrative is ‘they were warned but they did nothing,’” said Eric Dezenhall, a public relations crisis consultant in Washington, D.C.

Bob Phibbs, a retailing consultant in New York, said Walmart is smarter to empty the lot now than wait, especially with the kickoff of the holiday shopping season coming Friday.

“It’s only going to get worse by the hour,” he said. He said moving people out, from a public-relations standpoint, would be particularly difficult the closer it gets to Christmas.

But he added “there’s not a clear answer.” And Burt Flickinger III, a retailing consultant, said keeping the lot open to evacuees in spite of the potential negative impact on store sales might be worth the goodwill.

For its part, the company said it wanted people to leave because of public safety issues.

“We continue to be concerned about the health, safety and well-being of the individuals remaining on our property and have been working cooperatively with city, county and state officials and local non-profits to increase capacity at local shelters and help create good temporary housing options,” Walmart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said late Tuesday.

Butte County officials have also tried to clear out the lot, offering rides and gas-station gift cards and opening another shelter, this one in Gridley. But many evacuees have been unwilling to move, saying Gridley is too far from their homes and they’re worried about contracting norovirus, as more than 100 sheltered evacuees have.