Is Wal-Mart the symptom or the disease? Plus: Debating the connection between the London bombings and Iraq.

By Salon Staff
August 4, 2005 12:24AM (UTC)
main article image

[Read "Wal-Mart's P.R. War," by Liza Featherstone.]

The saddest thing evidenced in a rural area dominated by exclusive Wal-Mart shoppers is the economic illusion it projects and protects: America's middle class. That middle class is fast disappearing along with most small-business opportunities due to corporations operating as Wal-Mart operates.


Many of today's families are living paycheck to paycheck, and that crowd includes a great swath of America's middle class, buried up to their necks in debt. These families are also in severe economic denial -- they could care less that Wal-Mart's "price rollbacks" have rolled over jobs formerly held by American workers.

I think these consumers secretly know that Wal-Mart's corporate practices are not "red, white and blue" at the core, but by affording more of less, they sleep better at night. These are the major activists in support of Wal-Mart: the actively poor. And I fear their ranks are stronger than imagined.

-- E.J. Moore


While righteous indignation and furious anger about what this or that nongovernmental organization plans to do about Wal-Mart might sound like progress, the last time I was in one it was chock full of people. Many of those people were lower and lower-middle class and immigrants, legal or not. Most of them seem completely disconnected from the goals or aspirations of this activism and would resent deeply any efforts to ratchet up prices as a result of corporate fair-mindedness.

It's a little like charity, which is rich people telling the middle class to give to the poor. And trust me, if activism did result in marginally higher prices it would be perceived as blue-state intervention and micromanagement. It would be perceived as "those liberals" caring more about Malaysian children than American children. It would push more people to red-state politics.

-- Stephen Rifkin


As the article implies, the problems with Wal-Mart are big-picture problems. But most Americans, especially the low- and low-middle-income Americans who shop at Wal-Mart, simply do not live in a big-picture universe. Being poor is hard work, and it is far more important for daily survival to save money buying the consumer items Wal-Mart makes available at reasonable prices. Sure, they're contributing to their own continued poverty and misery, but that's big-picture talk.

I've pointed out these problems to fellow shoppers at Wal-Mart itself, while entirely dressed in Wal-Mart khakis and drooling at the sight of inexpensive Wal-Mart honey. No, that's not a metaphor, but it can be if you want...


Alan Hecht, middle-class American liberal, putting cheap Wal-Mart honey on his organic oatmeal.

-- Alan Hecht

Liza Featherstone's report on Wal-Mart was disappointing. She buys into the myth that Wal-Mart itself is the disease to cure, but it is merely a symptom. Target and most other corporate chains differ only in size and degree, not in kind. The labor unions spending millions of dollars to try "changing Wal-Mart" have a poor understanding of the systemic issues.


How about reporting on the groups that recognize this and work to address the structural problems, not just the symptoms. Reclaim Democracy and the New Rules Project are chief among them. (Disclosure: I sporadically volunteer for Reclaim Democracy.)

-- Luisa Ortega

I don't shop at Wal-Mart for one particular reason: Awful service.


The stores are extremely large, messy and disorganized. I find their employees neither helpful or courteous. I don't even find the prices all that low when compared to other retailers.

The downfall of Wal-Mart may not be due to public pressure, but due to its strategy of only caring about the bottom line. There aren't any more price concessions to squeeze out of suppliers. All retailers are now getting their merchandise from the same Chinese manufacturers. Wal-Mart no longer has exclusive access to these suppliers.

While the savings that Wal-Mart used to depend upon to underprice their competitors are getting harder and harder to find, their low pay is affecting the quality of their workforce. Their employee turnover rate is the highest in the retail sector. Any savings on wages and benefits is now being eaten up by constant training and recruiting efforts.

It is interesting that Costco, another low-cost price leader, manages to keep its prices down while paying some of the highest salaries and best benefits packages in the industry.


Costco finds savings from hiring better and more efficient workers, not wasting money on training new employees because the old ones have quit.

The demise of Wal-Mart might seem farfetched, but history is riddled with former goliaths who simply refused to adapt to changing circumstances.

-- David Weintraub

Really excellent article on Wal-Mart. You obviously recognize what few do -- Wal-Mart, as you said, makes a community poorer as part of its corporate planning, thus forcing more of us to have little choice but to buy from them. Evil genius if I ever heard of it.


One question -- did you say, "Republicans don't like to see tax dollars wasted"? That's true only in their propaganda. It's where the waste is that concerns them. Look at their energy bill -- $14 billion to energy companies -- and their Medicare prescription bill, which gave $18 billion to pharmaceutical and insurance companies. God forbid some poor family get childcare aid.

-- Edith Conrand

Has anyone investigated Wal-Mart's extensive use of contributions to nonprofits to gain customers and good P.R.? The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) recently signed on Wal-Mart as a corporate "partner." The company is featured on the organization's national Web site and receives recognition at national meetings. Local chapters are also required to "recognize" Wal-Mart as a partner.

When the current president and six past presidents of our San Francisco chapter of NAWBO strongly objected, the national [headquarters] was adamant in retaining the right to partner with any company it chose. This despite our forwarding dozens of articles demonstrating the anti-women and anti-small-business policies and practices of Wal-Mart. All it cost Wal-Mart for this national recognition was $50,000!


-- Sharon Gadberry

I would like to see someone do a comparative study on the different big-box stores (Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, et al.) and rank them in terms of worker pay and treatment, benefits, health coverage, etc. For those who need the price break of a big box, it would be nice to know if we have choices between them as to which is more socially destructive, and which is more socially benign.

There is no way I will ever have enough money to shop at Nordstrom or Tiffany's (or their equivalents), but I may have just enough money to be able to choose between a Wal-Mart or a Kmart, or a Target, or a Costco, based on what social indexes I want to support.

-- Joshua Banner

[Read "London Jogging," by Hans Nichols.]

There is no "near consensus" view among Londoners that the bombings are to do with government policies in Iraq. Many of us blame opportunistic and amoral Muslim clerics and a group of brain-dead bombers willing to be led to mass murder.

The writer's choice of representatives -- George Galloway and Max Hastings -- are on two relatively extreme sides of the political spectrum, but that hardly qualifies as "widespread agreement." In fact, the three major political parties have conspicuously avoided making political capital on the issue of the causes of war. (The Conservatives called for an investigation into the failures of intelligence leading up to 7/7, but have since quietly dropped it.)

Let's not forget that the 9/11 attacks, the Nairobi embassy and Bali bombings all came before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq, however misguided or illegal you may believe it to be, was not the catalyst for attacks on innocent Londoners by Islamic fundamentalists. It's just the latest excuse.

-- Sean Cronin

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------