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Saturday, July 16, 2005

United States of Wal Mart

United States of Wal-Mart

“Victoria's Secret. Well their stuff's real nice.
But I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal-Mart shelf half price”

-Gretchen Wilson (Redneck Woman)

The line in “Redneck Woman” represents how shopper’s attitudes have changed. Not long ago, people didn’t brag about shopping at a discount store.

Now boasting about bargains has become the national sport.

Bargains are a way for shoppers to feel good about their mastery of the supply chain. John Dicker, author of “The United States of Wal-Mart,” ( traces the change in attitude to the recession of the early 1990’s.

In a recession where white collar workers fared worse than others, displaced workers dropped Macy’s and never came back.

The shift in shopping attitude is one of many great insights that Dicker gives us in “The United States of Wal-Mart.”

It is a provocative book based on history, sociology and Dicker’s edgy writing style.

He wrote, “It’s clear. We’re all Wal-Mart’s bitches.”

In one sentence he is both shocking, insightful and speaks great truth.

The whole book is like that.

I’ve been burning through the New York Times bestseller list and also recommend “Freakanomics,” “The World is Flat”and “One of a Kind” about professional poker player Steuy Ungar.

I will eventually write about Freakanomics, but the book I am really pushing is “The United States of Wal-Mart.”

I love the book but I really want Dicker to make it big as an author. This reminds me of when I became one of the first American journalists to write about the band Scissor Sisters.

I featured them a year before they headlined at Live 8 and feel invested in their careers.

I want to see Dicker have that same kind of rapid success.

Reading his work gives me the thrill that a bargain seeker gets when finding a great deal.

Like buying a pack of underwear for $1.99.

If Dicker makes the top of the bestsellers’ list, it won’t be because of a huge marketing machine behind him. He is a freelance writer in Denver and “The United States of Wal-Mart” is his first book.

He does not have a web page or a massive publicity campaign. I got his email address by posting a request for it on Amazon. He wrote me back via Hotmail from an internet café and noted that he had to type quickly as he was being charged by the minute.

He ignored my offer to pay for a web page in return for part of his profits. A smart decision as his book will soon make him wealthy.

With or without a web site.

I bought the book thinking it was one of the many Wal-Mart bashing books in circulation. Dicker takes his shots but his conclusions are even-handed.

He explains the sociological and business changes that allowed Wal-Mart to become the 800 pound gorilla of the retail world.

He points out Wal-Mart’s warts but entwines them in the history of how Wal-Mart grew from one store to a company that does $288 billion in sales.

Dicker devotes many pages to Wal-Mart’s alleged exploitation of foreign labor and allegations of mistreating American employees.

He notes the number of class action lawsuits, like the one Covington attorney Barbara Bonar has filed in Ashland, based on alleged gender discrimination and alleged violations of wage and hour laws.

He explains why attempts to unionize the company have failed and that some of the blame goes to the inept efforts of union leaders with six figure salaries and country club memberships.

There is one way to stop a Wal-Mart from coming into a community and that is to fight it over zoning issues. Protests over labor practices or its impact on other businesses have had little success, but zoning battles have kept Wal-Mart out of some cities.

The prospect of driving down property values or traffic problems will cause a large cross section of a community to fight Wal-Mart. Nothing else will stop it.

Dicker discussed how the move of Wal-Mart into inner cities has a positive economic impact on blighted communities. Poor people don’t complain about having a Wal-Mart nearby when the alternative is to a take bus or cab across town.

The book gives us a lot to think about, especially if you live in a small town where Wal-Mart is the only place to shop.

He ends the book with an ominous insight:

“The ugly truth is that we have become a nation that values little above a bargain. Customer service, product quality, a connection to people who make and sell our sacred stuff - it’s all become secondary to savings.”

Gretchen Wilson and millions like her can brag about finding a Wal-Mart bargain. That bargain has a cost.

Read the book. It is funny, insightful and not on sale in the Wal-Mart book department.

Don McNay is President of McNay Settlement Group and does not buy his clothes at Wal-Mart or Victoria’s Secret. You can write to him at or you can read other things he has written at