Too Mutch

...a safe place to dance with ideas, play with theology, and re-create a life implicated by God

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wal-Mart: Benevolent or Malignant?

I grew up during the BOOM of Wal-Mart. My family loved Wal-Mart. We shopped there for all sorts of stuff. We killed time there. We ran into our neighbors and friends there. I can remember when Wal-Mart broke into the grocery business. The Supercenter. The super-heros of retail. That's what we all thought, anyways. Wal-Mart has saved us a lot of money...and a lot of time. Sam Walton and his hard-working southern angels have somehow--miraculously--saved us.

However, we now find ourselves asking if the super-hero wasn't really the villain. Here is what author Charles Fishman of The Wal-Mart Effect says in response to the question, "What is the Wal-Mart Effect?"

It's an amazing question. It's hard to know even what kind of question it is: A political question? An economic question? A moral question? A values question? The question is really shorthand for a whole set of larger questions...Is Wal-Mart good for America or bad? Is Wal-Mart itself good or bad? When we spend our money at Wal-Mart, are we helping companies and the economy and factory workers along with ourselves? Or are we just adding drops of acid to the corrosion of the very system we value?

This, essentially, is the daunting question that Fishman sets out to investigate. And he does a remarkable job of engaging the reader with great stories and helpful information, without tipping his own hand one way or another. One thing I appreciate about the way he writes is that he does not allow us to consider only half of the issue. He doesn't just throw around popular rhetoric about this super-hero / villain. He gives you all you can handle about the positive and negative implications of this retail giant. No simple apologetic. Complex. Multi-layered. Just how we like our economic, moral, and political issues.

Maybe you are not impressed with Wal-Mart and its gerth. Maybe you are a Michigander and see Meijer competing pretty well with Wal-Mart. Here are some of the rather interesting tid bits from Fishman's book to wet your appetite and to get you thinking a bit.

  • Back in the early 1990's, every bottle of deodorant was sold in a box. Today, you can walk into any store and see that deodorant now comes in the flesh. Wal-Mart told its suppliers to get rid of the box, saving 10M a year--half to you and half to Wal-Mart.

  • Wal-Mart entered the grocery business in about 1990 and mastered it, becoming the #1 grocer in America and now the #2 grocer in Britain. They accomplished this in less than 10 years against supermarket chains that had been masters of their domain for over 50 years. The savings? 15% on average. That's $900/yr for an average family of 4.

  • It's all based on volume. Sell more. Create the taste for more. The average person spends 2G's per year at Wal-Mart. Their profit is a mere $75.

  • How big? Bigger than Home Depot, Kroger, Target, Costco, KMart, and Sears combined. Each year Wal-Mart sells more by St. Patrick's day than Target sells all year long.

  • Wal-Mart is almost solely responsible for taking salmon from delicacy to affordable, common meal @ $4.84/lb.

One thing is clear. If I shop at Wal-Mart, I will save money. But is that my only grid? Is this the only filter I have for deciding what I buy and where I buy it? What about issues of justice and morality? Can we hear the cries of the factory workers here on US soil? Can we hear the cry of the ocean floor wasting away because of the fish farms? Will I spend more of my money because I choose to support a company that pays its employees fair-er wages?

What is my filter? What is my grid?

I'll explore some of these questions and issues in my next couple of posts. I'd love your questions and feedback.


At 9:44 PM, Blogger diane said...

My goodness. You'll never believe this: about a year ago i watched a documentary on Wal-Mart. At church. And tonight I found my notes and was re-reading them.

That's just crazy.

Personally, I boycott Wal-Mart. And Taco Bell.

But have I ever mentioned how much i LOVE cookies?

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Greg said...

whatever it is that taco bell is doing, i don't want to know. Ignorance is bliss. I've heard of this love of cookies, but am starting to think it is more of a fantasy than a reality, given your decision to ditch us for better plans on wed nite

At 9:17 AM, Blogger ARK said...

my question about that issue. What are the indicators of a place that is fair to its employees and what is an indicator that the Co. in question is being involved with social injustice?

Another side thought from the teachings of Jesus. what is actual injustive when it comes to this sort of thing? Jesus told a parable about a few men who worked in a feild as hired help. one started at the beginning of the day and the other men started later. when it came time to get paid the master of the feild gave them all the same amount of money. when the man who had been there from the start questioned this and said Look! I've been here all day working. how is that I am getting paid the same as this person who just started. the reply of the master was this is my feild and I hierd you. Didn't you agree upon the wages I would pay you? Don't I have the right to do what I want with my money? are you envious because I am generous? the frist shall be last and the last shall be first.

that was quite a paraphrase but the story can be found in Matthew 20:1-16.

I think the story speaks for itself but the question stands. is walmart of other companies like it entitle to do what they want with their money and how they spend it and what wages they pay their employees who agree to work for that amount? Or is there a deeper meaning behind it all and this one parable doesn't shed light on this situation in its entirety?

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Greg said...

ark, a quick thought on the parable you referenced. One of the points of that parable isn't necessarily that the owner can pay what he wants...but that the owner can be as generous as he wants. Wal-Mart is not typically being accused of generosity. I would propose that a lot of people go to work at walmart b/c they NEED SOMETHING. When walmart moves into a town, a lot of other businesses close. Those employees have to find something, even if it is the company that put their original company out of business. As Christians, I believe we have to ask the questions of 'justice' before giving ourselves to a free market capitalism that is unrestrained.

Walmart can do what it wants, I suppose. But we can, and should, do what we SHOULD...even if it is not in our economic best interest.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger ben said...

Good stuff, Greg.

I will write something up as requested. Hopefully today or tomorrow.

Lookin forward to this series.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger diane said...

Greg. i DO like cookies. i DON'T like staying in GR later than 5 p.m.

Sometimes the dilemna is that the cookies are in GR after 5 p.m.

Another dilemna = Wal-Mart sells cookies. The nerve...

(i'm sorry, one of these days I'll try to leave a serious comment. i promise. either that or i'll leave the same type of comment that you leave on my blog.)

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Greg said...

touche, diane. but we have a warm and cozy house and bed here for you anytime you find yourself wanting to stay in GR after 5pm.


At 8:14 AM, Blogger ARK said...

what is that standard for generosity? should we cosider that everything we have as some kind of generous act in light that we don't deserve anything? or is there somethng more to the standard? more importantantly what does the bible say about what is generous and what isn't?

At 9:55 PM, Anonymous natedog said...

I'm sure Wal-mart has it's issues. I boycotted it for a while. Then I did a little bit of research and thinking on the issue and now I'm shopping there again. I hope we can talk about the positives as well and weigh them against the negatives. Here are a couple points
1)I found that Wal-mart creates more jobs than it takes away in a given community. This surprised me. What does your book say on this Greg?
2)I realized how good Wal-mart is for the American poor who needs life's basics. An unemployed 45 year old man living with his mom asked me to drive him to Wallyworld a while back so he could buy a winter jacket. He got a great deal.
3)Is there not something good to say on the subject of Wal-mart's efficiency influence that has led other companies to increase efficiency? What are both the negatives and positives of Walmart's efficiency for real people and for the business world?
4) What are our other alternatives? Other chain stores and even the smaller stores bring their products from overseas cheap labor as well.
How can we be sure that our products were produced in just labor conditions?
5) I think Taco bell is gross and if I ever see a Taco bell joint in a Wal-mart I will once again immediately boycott Wal-mart everywhere.
6) This isn't necessarily a pro or a con, but I think it's interesting how much of an effect Wal-mart has singlehandedly had in holding down inflation in the U.S. economy.

I'll keep an open mind Greg. i look forward to your post

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Greg said...

natedog. some good questions. All of which, I believe, are addressed in the book. So, If I don't get to them via a post or 2, let me know and I'll get that info to you.


At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Walmart India said...

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