Sunday, June 17, 2007

Wal-Mart revisited

An anonymous commenter on the immigration post below writes, "If you wish to make a moral argument against Wal-Mart, go for it."

I've never had much interest in making a moral case against Wal-Mart. My distaste for the world's largest retailer stems largely from other grounds:

1. Aesthetic. We create the world we live in by where we choose to shop. 24th and King is not my idea of a livable neighborhood.

2. Historical. I cut my journalistic teeth in East Texas when Wal-Mart was spreading rapidly to every city and burg, gobbling up mom and pops by the score. The experience left a bad taste in my mouth that has never quite gone away.

3. Practical. As a small business owner, I try to do business with people who do business with me. Wal-Mart never will.

4. Geopolitical. I just don't feel like propping up the Chinese government with my retail dollars.

5. Personal. I try to support businesses that offer jobs I might want to have someday. I don't want to work for Wal-Mart.

To the extent that I make a moral case against Wal-Mart, it has mostly to do with all of the lawsuits against it for unpaid overtime. Wal-Mart denies it has a policy of forcing people to work for free, but I worked for a company that operated in just the same manner, and it isn't right.

Two statistics in the new Harper's Index bolster my arguments. One is from a Civic Economics study that found that 68 cents of every dollar spent in a locally owned Chicago store is retained or recirculated in the community. Only 43 cents of every dollar spent in a chain store in Chicago stays there.

In practical terms, to cite another Civic Economics study, this one of San Francisco, if local merchants in San Francisco were able to increase their market share by 10 percent, 1,295 jobs would be created.

The other Harper's statistic came from Wal-Mart Watch, which says that Wal-Mart avoided more than $400 million in state taxes last year by renting stories from shell companies it created. That's not immoral, maybe, but close enough.


Anonymous said...

In a way, your enumerated laundry list of “problems” with Wal-Mart merely sounds like just another small businessman complaining about big business. And it has not escaped this reader that you might be subtly using this blog to advertise the fact that you are a “shop local guy,” and, hey, “If I support community businesses, you people ought to support me by buying my newspaper.” Call that the self-interest angle, or what you call “practical.”

On the other hand, your list could also be interpreted as merely the product of muddled thinking. In my point-by-point response, below, I will assume that is the case.

1. Aesthetic. Your axiom, “We create the world we live in by where we choose to shop,” seems to ring true. But I am at a loss to see how that is any different from “we vote with our dollars.” For example, if I shop at UPS for shipping services, are you saying I am causing the world to be populated with little brown trucks? If so, then I generally agree. And if there is any truth to this argument, then it would seem to me that the great majority of people like the looks of Wal-Mart stores, along with little brown trucks everywhere.

2. Historical. We all have our big and little traumas related to our early years. And I guess one could experience some sort of trauma by empathy while watching mom and pop stores being gobbled up by a Super Center, something like seeing the elderly couple next door getting eating by a mountain lion. In the small town where I live, I have never had to witness the horror of which you speak, but I have seen a True-Value store devour a hardware store owned by two brothers well past the age of Social Security and a Town Pump feast itself on four little gas stations.

3. Practical. I have already covered the self-interest aspect of what you call “practical,” but I would note for the record that Wal-Mart does in fact buy from local small businesses when enough Wal-Mart customers request it. (I am speaking here of goods. But services may also be a factor.) For example, the Butte Wal-Mart sells a lot of pasties that are made in Anaconda because, well, you know, the people in Butte like meat and potatoes and old-fashioned pie crust. Likewise, a lot of beef jerky made in Lincoln is sold. I think if more people in Billings liked your newspaper, you would see it in a rack near the front of your favorite Wal-Mart store, right next to the National Enquirer.

4. Geopolitical. Shopping at Wal-Mart is “propping up the Chinese government”? (I will play along here and naturally assume that we want the Chinese government to collapse.) And that bottle of imported vodka is propping up Vladimir Putin, I presume, also. But that is good, because we want Putin to oppose Bush’s Missile Defense Shield in Eastern Europe, correct? OK, so I do not understand the geopolitical aspects of shopping. Perhaps you will enlighten me on the mechanisms at work.

5. Personal. Frankly, nearly all of what you have written contra Wal-Mart is personal and, as I said, somewhat muddled. But now you say that you “don't want to work for Wal-Mart.” Did you know that a Wal-Mart Super Center department head with some experience earns about $60,000 per year? Not interested? All right. How about a job working as an assistant store manager at around $75 to $85,000? If you set your sights high enough, maybe you could see yourself managing an entire Super Center at a salary of $100,000 or more. Or were you thinking of just being a checkout clerk?

David said...

1. I don't know that most people like the look of Wal-Mart, but presumably they don't care too much, or they don't think their own few dollars are enough to make a difference.

2. So you know what I mean.

3. But Wal-Mart can't go too far down that road and still boast about low prices. By the way, Wal-Mart used to let us have racks at the entrances to Wal-Mart and we went through several hundred papers a week at each. Then the big bosses came through and kicked all the free publications outside. I don't think it was because we were unpopular; I think it was because we produced no immediate revenue for Wal-Mart.

4. See Point 1. I think that if people want to spend their dollars to create jobs in other countries, that's OK and, from a utilitarian standpoint, may even make the world a better place. But then don't complain about the jobs we lose.

5. I don't want to work there, not at $100,000 a year and not at $200 a week. I once managed a newsroom that had a million dollar budget with not one cent for overtime. That's not practical or just. No thanks.

Anonymous said...

Of the top of my head in the Billings Heights:

1. County Market-Closed

2. Smith's closed

3. K Mart-Closed

4. Osco Drug-Closed

Pete Hansen said...

David. Seems like we've been over this ground before including your article with the same anti Wal Mart stand, published in your August 13, 2006 edition. Therefore, since it's a repeat, I choose to repeat my response to that column as well as with some additions at the end.

"Uh!Excuse me David but, County Market like Smith's and Buttrey's as well as Albertson's has had the same opportunity to sell at "reasonable" prices. Smith's had been gouging Heights customers for years until Wal Mart opened, and I discovered that their orange juice, as an example, was $3.00 less a gallon than the identical product at Smith's! Do you expect shoppers to support a store that gouges to that degree when an alternative is available? If Cenex were to begin selling gas at $1.50 a gallon, would you expect we consumers to continue to buy gas at Exxon/Mobile at $3.00 a gallon to keep them in business? I get tired of the constant Wal Mart bashing. America is and always has been a competitive nation. Did Henry Ford worry about putting buggy makers out of business? But, I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you want to blame anyone for Wal Mart's success, buy a ballbat and stand outside and bash the customers coming out. They and their incomes determine what they want to spend. And, by the way, you can buy that bat for $5.00 less at Wal Mart than most of the Sporting goods stores in town. But, if you're affluent enough to afford to pay much more, go support the stores charging higher prices. And finally, as far as foreign made goods being sold at Wall Mart cheaper than other stores, try and find one that doesn't sell shirts made in China or Bangladesh, at twice the price. P.S. I am not a Wal Mart employee or stockholder."

Let me also add that Wal Mart employs millions of people that otherwise, would not have any job including the elderly greeters! Why do you not take to task both from an economic point of view (money not staying in in the community) as well an esthetics point of view such stores as Home Depot, Lowes, Old Navy, Albertson's, Ace Hardware etc? Have you compared the price of an identical packages of screws at both Ace Hardware and Wal Mart?

And, by the way, many of the above mentioned companies have also been sued for the same reasons.As for taxes, isn't it Quest and other large conglomerates that are constantly in court trying to get their Montana taxes reduced or refunded?

As a point about "Aesthetics" is concerned, the Heights Task Force worked with Wal Mart to design their new store in the Heights to look like something better than the grey box with stripes they notmally build as well as landscaping and other consessions and, while it might not be perfect, the exterior is more pleasing than the one on the west. A concession I might add that they've made to many other communities nationwide!

How about your "anonymous commenter" wishing for you to make a "moral argument against Wal Mart," I'm surprised that with the many other issues confronting us, that you chose to bow to someone who doesn't have the guts to back up their "opinions" by using their own name and, urge you to fight a battle or comment on something they don't have the courage to commten on themselves.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pete, is this why you are such a Wal Mart fan? You are over 65 aren;'t you?

Wal-Mart has long been known for a very strict policy: call the police on anyone who takes anything. But that policy is over. Wal-Mart, which I am guessing may be the largest shoplifting target in history, is no longer prosecuting first-time shoplifter unless they are between 18 and 65 and have stolen more than $25 worth of stuff. According to today’s N.Y. Times, this change puts Wal-Mart in line with most other chains’ policies.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great subject, it will never die! I have all sorts of theories about why people are always taking sides on Wal-Mart, but I’ll save them for another time. Just some notes here:

1. What’s up with that Smith’s grocery chain? Are they crazy? How do they stay in business with the prices they charge? There’s a Smith’s in Bozeman between North 7th and North 19th, not too far from the Wal-Mart Super Center. I’ve only been in there maybe twice. They have Alaska prices! You know like everything has to be flown in on a charter plane and it’s 200 miles to the next grocery store if you don’t like the price they’re asking. Does any business major out there have a clue why some people shop at Smith’s?

2. Pete Hanson—If you use your real name in this blog David Crisp will call you up and try to sell you a subscription to his newspaper!!!

3. Shoplifting at Wal-Mart. A $10 shoplifting incident probably costs the taxpayers $1000 when you count the costs of sending a cop, a not guilty plea, a justice court trial, maybe even a public defender. Better to just catch the shoplifter, break her thumbs, and ban her from the store.

David said...

Actually, I did sell Pete a subscription once, several years ago over a beer at Casey's Golden Pheasant. If I could afford the beer, I could sign everybody up.

Anonymous said...

Much of my income is spent at WALMART.

It's just the way it is, and the way it will be.

I just can't go to Evergreen IGA, dodge the old people, and pay $4 bucks+ for a box of cereal that WALMART sells for $2.58.