Even in a nation of shoppers whose most pressing metaphysical question is “Where’s my stuff?” the dominance of big-box retailer Wal-Mart is a jaw-dropper. The Arkansas-born-and-bred enterprise is now the 30th-largest economy in the world, China’s sixth-largest export market, Bangladesh’s most important customer, and Mexico’s largest private employer. On a single recent day, Wal-Mart had sales larger than the yearly gross domestic products of 36 sovereign nations combined.
Contributors to Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, a collection of essays from historians and sociologists, hope to show that this five-and-dime Leviathan has plunged us into a new hyper-retail dystopia in which big-box colossi stalk the globe, muscling aside anti-sprawl ordinances and fair-labor standards. And indeed, evidence suggests that an enterprise of Wal-Mart’s scale does create its own economic force field, dampening wages and distorting manufacturers’ prices and market access wherever it goes.
But as an essay by Susan Strasser explains, Sam Walton’s homespun empire is really just the latest in a fine old American tradition of consolidation and squeeze. Wal-Mart genealogy traces back to the late 19th century, to Frank Woolworth’s cost-control innovations and Richard Sears’ popularizing of mail order, and to the 20th-century explosion of discount houses and chain stores. Even before our own age of retailer giantism, centrally coordinated businesses pushed aside independent merchants and replaced locally based enterprises with national corporations. Market-watchers have been keening over the corpse of the small-town independent entrepreneur for generations.
The truth of the matter, argues contributor Bethany E. Moreton, is that Wal-Mart is a success exactly because its managers have latched on to—and are sucking the life out of—traditional red-state values. The corporation’s HR practices succeed in sweating labor by playing on employees’ traditional values to promote the Wal-Mart “family.” If Wal-Mart is just one big happy family, then we all pitch in to do what’s got to be done, and a little unpaid overtime is to be expected—or so the reasoning goes.
So is Wal-Mart a blessing or a curse for America? As the essayists recognize, even Wal-Mart has its good points. Wal-Mart’s “everyday low prices,” by some estimates, trim as much as $600 per year off the cost of a family’s basket of goods. Some analysts credit the retailer with keeping a damper on the U.S. inflation rate; a 2002 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. attributed 25 percent of the U.S. economy’s productivity gains from 1995 to 1999 to Wal-Mart. And, of course, Wal-Mart directly employs 1.33 million Americans, locating many of those jobs in economically depressed communities.
But the contributors don’t leak much ink in celebrating these achievements, instead focusing on the costs of Wal-Mart-style retailing: Mr. Sam stiffs Uncle Sam, since Wal-Mart’s meager health-care coverage and depressed wages dump costs on taxpayers. And while a dollar spent at the mom-and-pop on the corner may circulate several times through the local economy, throwing off additional jobs and investment, much of a dollar spent at Wal-Mart evaporates into the global-market stratosphere. And don’t forget how Wal-Mart’s exurban, big-box retailing is despoiling the metropolitan landscape, blighting traditional downtowns and increasing average per-household drive times, smog, and sprawl.
What is to be done? A closing essay by organizer Wade Rathke suggests building a “Wal-Mart Workers Association” that would advocate broadly for improved workplace conditions, rallying the public and politicians to the cause of labor equity rather than focusing narrowly on discrete collective bargaining agreements.
Perhaps Americans could be persuaded to make a different choice. In Germany, where the Wal-Mart machine slammed into a well-rooted commitment to worker quality of life, the company has yet to show a profit. But good luck reconciling Wal-Mart’s excesses with the everyday low prices. While American shoppers may speak nostalgically of old Main Street’s down-home proprietors, we continue to drive our dollars to the suburban hypermart. We like our stuff, lots of it, and we like it cheap—never mind the real costs. —Bell Clement