"Wal-Mart is going about this in a very pragmatic way," said Justin Nelson, president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, an independent organization with 24,000 members. "They have been viewed with some degree of skepticism by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, and it's important for them in terms of gaining market share to change that."
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman declined to comment on the trio of moves and would only confirm the company's partnership with the NGLCC.
The initiative comes as Wal-Mart aims to broaden its appeal and woo both upscale and urban markets, but this is not the first time Wal-Mart has attempted to appease critics in the gay and lesbian community. In 2003 -- after years of lobbying by activist groups -- Wal-Mart extended its workplace nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation.
Firm typically a consultant
Despite an ongoing review for its $578 million ad account, Wal-Mart hired Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing shop known for its work targeting the gay and lesbian consumer market, according to Bob Witeck, president of the Washington-based firm. Wal-Mart would not confirm the assignment and Mr. Witeck declined to comment on the "nature of the relationship," but added: "We work in more of a consulting role with most of our clients."
Founded in 1993, the eight-person agency's client list boasts automotive brands Volvo, Land Rover, and Jaguar, in addition to American Airlines, Citigroup and at least a dozen nonprofits, such as the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Witeck-Combs, a member of the NGLCC, is also a participant in the organization's supplier-diversity initiative, or SDI, a certification program launched this year and modeled after minority- and women-supplier development programs. Corporate participants already include IBM, American Airlines, Motorola and American Express.
As part of the Wal-Mart Stores partnership with the NGLCC, Dee Breazeale, VP-divisional merchandising, Sam's Club Jewelry, has joined the organization's Corporate Advisory Council and Wal-Mart will sponsor two of the organization's annual conferences.
Mr. Nelson said Wal-Mart approached the organization four months ago, expressing interest in the supplier-diversity initiative. "The expectation is that Wal-Mart will encourage their core suppliers -- the P&G's, the Johnson & Johnson's and the Gillette's -- to also diversify their revenue streams to include LGTB businesses," Mr. Nelson said.
He said the retailer is "working right now on providing domestic-partnership benefits" and that Wal-Mart may soon join the 261 members of the Fortune 500 that offer the benefits.
Strongest signal yet
The steps being taken by Wal-Mart are the strongest signal yet that the company may be taking a permanent stand on the side of gay rights, despite the inevitable lambasting from right-wing conservative groups, such as the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, said Nu Wexler of Wal-Mart Watch, the Washington-based coalition backed by the Sierra Club and the Service Employees.
"This partnership shows Wal-Mart is changing," Mr. Wexler said. "It's worth noting they declined to publicize this partnership and left it up to the chamber. Wal-Mart is very eager to publicize partnerships. It's possible they fear a backlash from their conservative consumer base."