". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Wal-Mart Nation

I know a lot of people who despise Wal-Mart. I have a love-hate relationship with the store. But over the course of my shopping lifetime, there has been more to love than hate. So I appreciated this recent story in the New York Post:

"Undercover at Wal-Mart: the Heartland Store That May Save the Economy"

The author, Charles Platt, applied and got a job at Wal-Mart so as to get an inside employee view of how the chain operates. His experience puts the lie to a lot of the common Wal-Mart wisdom.

Here's a quote:

"With more than 7,000 facilities worldwide, coordinating more than 2 million employees in its fanatical mission to maintain an inventory from more than 60,000 American suppliers, it has become a system containing more components than the Space Shuttle - yet it runs as reliably as a Timex watch."

My thought after reading this article is that Wal-Mart puts our government to shame. The feds would do well to run as efficiently as Wal-Mart. I am reminded that in the aftermath of Katrina, the response of Wal-Mart was more timely and effective than FEMA's. It could be that a day will come when the USA will be such a disorganized, catastrophic mess that we will thank our lucky stars (and our Lord) for the infrastructure and inter-connectedness that Wal-Mart provides, benefitting more from our status as "Walmartians" than as "Americans."

A few more quotes from the article in case you don't have time for the whole thing:

"Merchandise from Wal-Mart has become as ubiquitous as the water supply. Yet still the company is rebuked and reviled by anyone claiming a social conscience, and is lambasted by legislators as if its bad behavior places it somewhere between investment bankers and the Taliban. . . . Considering this is a company that is helping families ride out the economic downturn, which is providing jobs and stimulus while Congress bickers, which had sales growth of 2% this last quarter while other companies struggled, you have to wonder why."

"To my mind, the real scandal is not that a large corporation doesn't pay people more. The scandal is that so many people have so little economic value. Despite (or because of) a free public school system, millions of teenagers enter the work force without marketable skills. So why would anyone expect them to be well paid?
In fact, the deal at Wal-Mart is better than at many other employers. The company states that its regular full-time hourly associates in the US average $10.86 per hour, while the mean hourly wage for retail sales associates in department stores generally is $8.67. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour. Also every Wal-Mart employee gets a 10% store discount, while an additional 4% of wages go into profit-sharing and 401(k) plans."

"You have to wonder, then, why the store has such a terrible reputation, and I have to tell you that so far as I can determine, trade unions have done most of the mudslinging."

"Anti-growth activists are the other primary source of anti-Wal-Mart sentiment. In the town where I worked, I was told that activists even opposed a new Barnes & Noble because it was 'too big.' If they're offended by a large bookstore, you can imagine how they feel about a discount retailer.
The argument, of course, is that smaller enterprises cannot compete. My outlook on this is hardcore: I think that many of the 'mom-and-pop' stores so beloved by activists don't deserve to remain in business.
When I first ventured from New York City to the American heartland, I did my best to patronize quaint little places on Main Street and quickly discovered the penalties for doing so. At a small appliance store, I wasn't allowed to buy a microwave oven on display. I had to place an order and wait a couple of weeks for delivery. At a stationery store where I tried to buy a file cabinet, I found the same problem. Think back, if you are old enough to do so, and you may recall that this is how small-town retailing used to function in the 1960s.
As a customer, I don't see why I should protect a business from the harsh realities of commerce if it can't maintain a good inventory at a competitive price. And as an employee, I see no advantage in working at a small place where I am subject to the quixotic moods of a sole proprietor, and can never appeal to his superior, because there isn't one.
By the same logic, I see no reason for legislators to protect Safeway supermarkets with ploys such as zoning restrictions, which just happen to allow a supermarket-sized building while outlawing a Wal-Mart SuperCenter that's a few thousand square feet bigger."


Evan said...

I would love to see Wal-Mart replace AAFES in running the military exchanges, at least the ones overseas.

When I was in Iraq, at a base home to several thousand soldiers and airmen, the PX was out of soap for MONTHS. They kept running increasingly desperate discounts on cases of bottled water, when bottled water is delivered free by the palletload to every building on the base. It would have been laughable if it wasn't so frustrating.

Dave said...

nice post....


Elephantschild said...

And you know what else? I've heard that in some cases, adding a Walmart to a small town HELPS the local economy because the Walmart turns the town into a magnet.

I think of our town, where the Mom and Pops are CLOSED on Sunday afternoons, are CLOSED after 5pm, are CLOSED on Mondays. People drive 15 miles OUT of town to the next town's Walmart anyway. What if everyone going to THAT Walmart was coming HERE instead, and eating lunch at OUR restaurants, taking their dry cleaning to OUR drycleaners, etc?

Jane said...

I don't like Walmart because it is dirty and unpleasant to shop there and their merchandise is shoddy, made-in-China crud. I also think that the tactics that they have used on some of their suppliers are pretty cruddy and have definitely cost American jobs. And those were manufacturing jobs, not low-paying retail jobs.

I don't tell anyone else they shouldn't shop there, but I avoid it unless there is no choice.

Evan said...

I certainly understand people who avoid Walmart out of personal preference. That's the free market at work. But as the stories about how Walmart has worked with suppliers, I just don't know what to think. I feel like I always hear the same sorts of vague implications, but I'm curious about the source, considering the millions of dollars that the unions have poured into generating anti-Walmart PR. Not to say it's not true, it's quite possible. But there too, the real complaint is about the industry as a whole, while Walmart is just the most visible example. I doubt Target has a significantly higher ratio of American-made products.

Cheryl said...

I guess my experience at Walmart has been a little more mixed than yours, Jane. I have shopped in dirty stores and clean stores. I have bought stuff of good quality and not so good. But the bottom line for me has always been price. And of the stores in my area, Walmart generally has the best, which is something I can't ignore.