Class War and Wal-Mart

By Ryan McMaken
Posted on 1/16/2008
It doesn’t take a degree in marketing to see that Wal-Mart has an image problem among the chattering classes. Few corporations in recent decades have been subjected to more relentless criticism, disdain, and fevered condemnation than what is regularly heaped upon the Arkansas-based retail giant.
Wal-Mart has become the poster boy for everything that its opponents love to hate about the modern economy. From its use of nonunion labor to its “low” wages, to its marketing of inexpensive foreign goods, Wal-Mart is uniquely singled out as the most monstrous example of everything that is thought to be wrong with American society today.
Opposition to Wal-Mart takes many forms. At the local level, elections are organized to keep Wal-Mart stores out of town, and local activists sport “Mall Wart” bumper stickers. Planning commissions are filled with local officials who view Wal-Mart as something that is to be at best tolerated, but who frequently and openly condemn the retailer as a monstrosity.
Nationwide, anti-Wal-Mart propaganda is widespread in academia while media productions such as the lengthy “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” work to portray the company in the worst possible light. National labor unions could scarcely loathe Wal-Mart more than they already do, and both left-wing and right-wing populists of all stripes rail against the retailer for its selling foreign goods, its alleged war against “mom and pop” stores and its supposed use of tactics such as browbeating suppliers, “dumping” of goods, and other nefarious business practices.
Interestingly however, we rarely hear about Wal-Mart’s competitors when they engage in identical business practices, and this is not just because Wal-Mart is bigger than all of its competitors. Wal-Mart seems to elicit an emotional response that many of its competitor’s lack, and this emotional response is driven not so much by what Wal-Mart does, but by who and what it represents.
Take this passage from a recent edition of The American Conservative:
Wal-Mart began in Bentonville, Arkansas in 1962 as a single store and has grown to be the world’s largest corporation and employer. Target and Kmart opened their first stores the same year; the difference between them and Wal-Mart was, and is, the latter’s single-minded focus on offering the lowest possible prices all the time, not just during sales, no matter what it takes. Sam Walton banked on the addictive power of “too good to be true” bargain pricing to grow his business by cannibalizing existing retailers. It has worked—and in the process helped transform America from the workshop of the world into a nation not even of shopkeepers but of shop assistants (“sales associates”).
Clearly, this analysis could be applied to Home Depot, or Target, or Kmart, or the new Sears superstores, or any other of the hated “big box” stores that dot the landscape. The allegation that only Wal-Mart uses low prices as a supposedly evil business tactic is patently absurd, yet the author manages to get away with it because her readers are no doubt inclined to assign some kind of unique evil to Wal-Mart alone.
In addition, an anti-Wal-Mart site makes this proposal:
If you have a choice, choosing anyplace other than Wal-Mart helps keep the monster in check. It doesn’t have to be some mom-and-pop store. Shopping at Target helps the balance, too. Every dollar diverted from Wal-Mart is one dollar less of influence the company has.
Shopping at Wal-Mart’s competitors is apparently fine just as long as one doesn’t shop at Wal-Mart itself. Ever. No reason is given for this singling out of Wal-Mart beyond a naked and irrational repugnance of Wal-Mart and everything it stands for.
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