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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Tremendous Wal Mart article by John Dicker



All the rage

Wal-Mart as the great divider

By John Dicker  |  November 6, 2005

Tell people you're writing about Wal-Mart and count on the following reaction: For or against? Pro or con?

There's a reason for this: Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest employer and the most significant Arkansas export since W.J. Clinton, has long ceased to be a place to acquire trashcan liners and bask in the alienation of labor. Like it or not, Wal-Mart is not a discount store, it's a wedge issue. Better than abortion, or even than gay marriage, Wal-Mart simultaneously strikes at the heart of bread and butter issues from globalization to healthcare to the culture wars. From class to race, in states red and blue, Wal-Mart delights and disgusts just by being itself.

Opposing Wal-Mart is akin to an ideological ''choose your own adventure" game. If you're an economic nationalist you'll resent how its business model furthers the push of good manufacturing jobs overseas. If you're a union activist, you can stew on how it shuttered its store in Quebec only after its workers joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. You can oppose Wal-Mart for reasons both aesthetic (even its champions don't claim it's pretty) or environmental (Wal-Mart without auto-dependent sprawl is like Paris Hilton without a publicist), or for more recent news contained in a company memo leaked to The New York Times: 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart workers rely on Medicaid or have no health insurance.

Perhaps because of these economic issues, hating Wal-Mart is often framed as a purely Democratic pastime. After all, the company's hostility to unions hinders a waning but still significant party client: organized labor. But alas, don't be fooled. After all, who was the first woman to sit on the company's board of directors? I think her name was Clinton. Oh, and let's not even get into the Dems in high places who sup from the burgeoning trough of Wal-Mart's political action committee.

Well, maybe we can get into it. Though Wal-Mart's political donations favor Republicans nearly by 80 percent, leading Democratic senators, including Evan Bayh, majority leader Harry Reid, and, yep, Hillary herself have received funds from Bentonville, Ark.

On the other side of the political coin, even conservatives doubt Wal-Mart, albeit less directly: Last year William Kristol's Weekly Standard ran a piece by Geoffrey Norman suggesting that Wal-Mart's push into pastoral Vermont might irrevocably alter the character of the state. And then there's the more fundamental conservative argument against the behemoth, best summed up by UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who writes: ''By trampling small businesses underfoot, through its mix of volume pricing and subsidies, Wal-Mart and its ilk undermine the possibility of wide participation in businesses."

It's a great point. Compare the rise of big box retailers with, say, the Internet economy. The bubble bursting in 2000 notwithstanding, the Web has birthed a myriad of new businesses, many of which are born from modest amounts of capital. In retail, the trend is less the blooming of a thousand flowers than the sort of ill-advised, closing time merger born from fear of withering alone.

Recent retail marriages include Macy's and Bloomingdale's parent company Federated Stores with its rival May Department Stores (of Filene's Basement fame) and last year's marriage of Kmart and Sears. Expect a larger merger within the grocery sector as well, yet another category dominated by Wal-Mart.

As much as Wal-Mart likes to wrap itself in the flag of free market idealism, one has to look at retailing and wonder how free it is. Where are the new upstarts? Consider that of the top five US retailers only one, Home Depot, has come into existence in the last 25 years. Most have been around before or since 1962, the fateful year that birthed Target (now holding the number four spot) Woolco (RIP), Kmart (recently consolidated with Sears and holding on for dear market share), and Wal-Mart (number one).

Where opening a store was once a viable, if risky, proposition, it was feasible for those who wouldn't know a venture capitalist from a cheesecake. Folks like Sam Walton, who borrowed funds from his father-in-law to open his first five and dime after the Second World War. For all his gumption and evangelical appeal, one is hard pressed to wonder if this business folk hero could've started up in Wal-Mart's America.

Pushing aside the merger mania, the Wal-Mart debate is also fueled by a culture and class schism that comes straight out of the pages of Thomas Frank's ''What's the Matter With Kansas?" Call it the new American Shopulism, or the ontology of ''why pay more?" which posits that being unapologetic about your Wal-Mart habit is an antielitist stance unto itself.

As Gretchen Wilson sings in ''Redneck Woman": ''Victoria's Secret, well their stuff's real nice, but I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal-Mart shelf half price." Wilson doesn't say as much, but implicit in her lyrical salvo is that anti Wal-Mart hysteria is akin to elitism.

The question so appallingly absent from the Wal-Mart debate is almost too obvious to mention. How is helping to enrich a company controlled by a convalescing billionaire widow and her three billionaire children antielitist? And why is organizing to curb the reach and reform this company's policies likened to membership in a Nantucket yacht club?

What's interesting about Wal-Mart's opposition is how political posturing so often takes a back seat to practical concerns. In the dozens (and dozens) of communities where citizens are working to keep the retailer at bay, they're doing so without the ideological ammo one might expect. Issues that keep Wal-Mart in the news such as class action lawsuits, the trade deficit with China, and union turf squabbles don't come up half as frequently as pedestrian concerns.

These boil down to the effects a 24/7 supercenter can have on traffic, or -- and this is a big one -- a store's proximity to residential housing. Call it basic NIMBYism, or perhaps common sense, but when the greater American homeowner envisions a neighborhood grocer they don't conjure up 200,000-plus square feet with 1,000-plus parking spaces open 24/7. At least not yet.

Watching how they're played out in local media, many local ''site fights" seems as scripted as a White House press conference. Residents and community groups on one side, developers and their political allies on the other. But one observation that comes up again and again comes from mayors and city councilors stating that no other issue has brought so many people to a City Hall meeting as the prospect of a Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart's stock answer is to dismiss the whole thing to a minority of rabble-rousers. According to its army of PR flacks, Wal-Mart is invariably supported by a silent majority. Questioned last year on CNBC, CEO Lee Scott explained it this way: ''. . . Look at the record of the places where we had difficulty getting in, and then go look at how busy the stores are on a Saturday. Is it that the customers didn't want us, or is it that a group -- a particular group -- didn't?"

Funny how an empire built on mastering data can't provide any to bolster these claims of muted solidarity. Nevertheless Scott's response is as illuminating as it is arrogant. What we can deduce from it is this: Once Wal-Mart goes up, uppity citizens acquiesce all the way to the checkout line.

For those inclined to write off the whole debate to the self-interest of organized labor, well, consider that many of these site fights occur far beyond the urban markets where the grocery workers union, UFCW, has its power base. And neither are these exurban hotbeds of Wal-Mart resistance in places like Union County, S.C., West Springfield, Ill., and Southern Colorado home to the predictable contingent of Granola Grannies, Trustafarians, and other easily caricatured activists. Nope, the fight against Wal-Mart is more complex and often more pragmatic than the way it's characterized in the popular political imagination.

Adding fire to this debate is something more abstract, but no less potent: collective ambivalence. Consider a recent survey published in Advertising Age, which found Wal-Mart ranking in the top three of the most and least trusted American corporations.

Another study by the Chicago-based research firm Leo J. Shapiro and Associates found that even in Oklahoma City, a market Wal-Mart has dominated for years, shoppers don't want for mixed feelings. The report surveyed customers for nearly four years between 2000 and 2003 dividing them into categories based on their attitude toward Wal-Mart: champions, enthusiasts, rejecters, and conflicted. Surprisingly the conflicted folks who have social objections toward the big Wal-Mart, turned out to spend more than enthusiasts, averaging over five Wal-Mart trips a month.

Alas, Wal-Mart's friends defend the company on grounds that no one is forced to shop there. That the free market is the ultimate arbiter of Wal-Mart's policies. That shopping and voting are one and the same. Well, sadly, almost everyone shops, while not everyone votes.

Write about Wal-Mart and you soon learn that everyone has a reaction to the place. People are amazed and frightened and fascinated by its potential for growth. By its mastery of technology. You can buy a healthcare plan at Sam's Club. In a few Alabama Wal-Marts you can rent a car. The company's going into gas stations. Convenience stores. Banks. Wal-Mart, it seems, is everywhere.

Whether this is something you fear, embrace, or find merely shrugworthy, it's worth considering where Wal-Mart isn't. And that's in any idealized portrait of America, from paintings to postcards to the opening credits of Hollywood movies. The places we go for our daily bread of deep discounts, the sprawling big box strips, are seldom seen and rarely celebrated.

Call them our retail ghettoes, but they're as American as any Rocky Mountain vista, and their consequences are tearing us apart.

John Dicker is author of ''The United States of Wal-Mart."  

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