Monday, December 05, 2005

Fear and loathing in WalMart

On the heels of the Washington Post piece about the economic good foisted on communities around the nation (often in spite of themselves) by Walmart, comes this study (actually released a week before Thanksgiving but highlighted over at The Corner mid-week) that informs us that there truly is nothing new under the sun:

The current public debate surrounding Wal-Mart fits within a historical context of democratic responses to changes in the retail sector. From Sears Roebuck and the emergence of the mail order industry in the late 19th century to the various chain stores that emerged during the 1920s, the American public has proven wary of retail innovations. Wal-Mart, as the largest retailer in America and the pioneer of the large discount chain store, is currently experiencing this same public wariness regarding its business practices and its role in the American economy.

The executive summary offers examples of previous retail innovation that has similarly drawn the ire of the public and men and women who govern them over previous decades in Sears Roebuck and Woolworth's. Both innovators in their industry who endured much scrutiny very similar in nature to what WalMart faces today.

Well, what of it all? Is there really a point here? Most certainly!

Simply put, Wal-Mart and the current tempest surrounding it's policies and practice is yet another in a long line of such furies thrown up at innovative retailers as they re-define their industry while creating economic goods all along the way. The study makes clear the benefits to many that WalMart creates:

This report additionally asks the question of whether or not Wal-Mart is good for America, analyzing how Wal-Mart treats its employees, its effect on the American economy, and on small towns and small retailers. The conclusions reached are that Wal-Mart fits very well within a pattern of retail innovation and displacement, by which consumers benefit from new systems of retail...

Likewise, they make clear that the criticisms most often made are not necessarily confined to WalMart alone, finding that...Wal-Mart is very much in line with the rest of the American retail sector in terms of benefits and pay, and that the dissolution of Main Street retail is not caused by Wal-Mart per se, but is part of a larger overall change in consumer habits. Considering the discount retail sector as a whole, most of the criticisms directed toward Wal-Mart are largely shared throughout the industry.

What of my interest? Why have I recently and in the past as well, posted to the defense of WalMart? Am I a corporatist? Am I a shill for this particular corporation? No, and no again.

I am simply loathe to allow unfounded, inaccurate criticism go unanswered. It is the same reason I have often been called an apologist for the Bush administration. For the purposes of clarification, allow me to make something clear.

I will gladly criticize when there are valid criticisms to be made. Calling the Bush administration a bunch of liars when there is no actual, real evidence of manipulation and or outright lying is not a valid criticism. Likewise, many things said of WalMart and their practices follows the same lines; the facts about what WalMart offers to a community show demonstrably that there are many benefits. Benefits that far exceed the real and potential negatives.

That is why I commented on the Post piece. It's also why I wrote in reaction to the CEI release. There are always real criticisms to be made of almost anybody and any company. Why then do people feel the need to go out of their way making ridiculous and flat-out inaccurate ones?

And here's where I offer a criticism of my own: Bentonville ought to get off their duff and communicate with customers, with communities, with anyone who will listen. The CEI release is dead-on in it's close:

...Wal-Mart brings great advantages in price and selection, especially to consumers who are most in need of low prices, and maintains high productively across the U.S. economy. Where the company is failing is in its belated recognition of its obligation to engage in open communication with citizens about its business practices and as to why it ultimately provides a benefit to American consumers and to the broader American economy.

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