Wal-Mart surfs the meltdown

The global economic crisis could give the retail colossus more freedom to operate as it pleases.

By Andrew Leonard

Published November 3, 2008 4:30PM (EST)

Depending on where you stand on the Wal-Mart-O-Meter -- ranging from Wal-Mart: Genius of Capitalism to Wal-Mart: Civilization's Downfall -- you will likely have a differing reaction to a quote from CEO Lee Scott, captured by the Financial Times in "Wal-Mart Sees Opportunities Amid the Crisis:"

Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. retailer, has said it believes it could see "extraordinary opportunities" in the global retail landscape created by the disruption of financial markets.

Lee Scott, chief executive, told investors and analysts this week that "there are probably things that the government might allow you to do that they would not have allowed you to do in the past", while saying that the retailer would take a "thoughtfully aggressive" approach to any opportunities.

What I think this means, in practice, is that, in a down economy, local governments might not be so averse to Wal-Mart plopping a superstore nearby, upsetting small businesses and anti-Wal-Mart activists. But one can push the limits of "thoughtful aggression" a long way. Perhaps governments, foreign and domestic, will also exert less force in their (halfhearted) attempts to improve wages and healthcare for Wal-Mart workers.

The logic seems inescapable -- when the economy melts down, the low-price leader rules all.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy Wal-mart Wall Street