Doing business with the Devil
by M. Stewart
Brian DiTullio’s ORL article, Customer Service, sparked an interesting discussion. Because of one of my comments that included a reference to Chinese goods retailer Wal-mart, one poster left us a link to a Wal-mart fact sheet regarding the company’s “Store of the Community” policy, which tells us that the company purchases some of its grocery-side produce from American sources.
Due to the perishable nature of fresh produce, it only makes sense that Wal-mart would purchase some of its fruit and vegetables from American producers. On other products, the fact sheet is more vague, indicating that Wal-mart purchases “from companies in more than 70 countries worldwide, including nearly 61,000 U.S. businesses—large and small. These relationships support more than 3 million U.S. jobs.”
I’m sure most ORL readers have seen documentaries and read books/articles about how Wal-mart does business. There is little doubt that the world’s largest company is devoted to bringing the American consumer low prices, and on one level—the one that affects our pocketbooks—Wal-mart’s business model does us all a great service. But there are other levels that indirectly affect our pocketbooks, not to mention our way of life, that everyone should be aware of before they become disciples of Sam Walton and evangelists for his company.
For anyone who doesn’t know about the dark side of Wal-mart, read something from an independent business publication like Fast Company: The Wal-mart You Don’t Know.
Please understand that I spend a lot of money at Wal-mart for no other reason than the low prices. That doesn’t mean I like the place, only that I take advantage of it, so I am fully aware that on this issue I speak with a very obvious forked tongue. However, there’s yet another side to the Wal-mart coin. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor.)
Not long ago in a class discussion, one of my students mentioned that she avoids Wal-mart in order to save money, and this is a woman with a family, who admitted that she manages her home on a very tight budget. She pointed out that because of Wal-mart’s one-stop shopping, consumers are enticed to spend a great deal more money than they intended due to the sheer number of cheap goods available.
Anyone who shops at Wal-mart knows how this works. You go there to buy groceries, but you end up buying lots of other stuff. Jo and I do this all the time. We go with the intent of purchasing $50 worth of groceries and end up spending $100 or more on other stuff (or vice versa). Call it lack of discipline or just plain consumer idiocy, but we still do it.
A counter argument says that if you drive around shopping at different stores looking for sales and bargains on individual items, you end up spending more on gasoline than if you’d just got all your stuff at Wal-mart. Clearly, there is truth in both arguments. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to be affluent enough to not worry about how much money I spend, but like most people, I’ve not achieved that level of monetary success.
One ORL poster wrote, “You can hate Wal-mart all you want and it won't make one bit of difference. Wal-mart isn't going to fall apart because you don't shop there and you aren't influencing anyone to stop shopping there by saying you hate the place.”
This is true. Wal-mart is too big to be influenced by any individual or group deciding not to shop there. But in a way, this is the problem, isn’t it? When a retailer the size of Wal-mart can change the economic structure of the entire world with no concern whatsoever for the damage it does to local economies, when Wal-mart can entice millions of customers who have lost their jobs at the local manufacturing plant because the company moved to China so it could sell cheaper products to Wal-mart, the battle is already lost.
The truth is that people are going to flock to Wal-mart for lower prices regardless of what they know about the company. Case in point: We recently purchased a microwave oven at Lowe’s for $200 only to find the exact same product at Wal-mart for $100. This may be a drastic example, but it’s one I won’t easily forget. What reasonable person would spend twice the amount on an appliance at one corporate superstore when he can buy the same thing at half the price at another corporate superstore?
Welcome to the 21st century economy. In truth, we have no one to blame but ourselves, but the Devil made us do it. Our inability or refusal to connect the dots, our own personal greed, our worship of convenience, our love affair with the suburbs--pick your poison. It all adds up to Wal-mart.
By the way, it turns out that Lowe’s and Wal-mart are not connected after all. Apparently the rumor has been going around, especially in Ohio. I’d heard it so many times from different people that I assumed it must be true. (That’s the danger of rumors, I know. So go ahead and kick me for it. I deserve it.) Given that the two stores often locate beside one another and that they have the same basic store design and business model, it was easy to believe the story.
When a co-worker of mine told me that the Wal-mart-Lowe’s rumor was not true, I asked her to post her findings, but she refused to do so. Since she has not, I will do it for her. Lowe’s is, in fact, an independently traded corporation. If there is a genuine connection between Lowe’s and Wal-mart, it's not apparent except in the rumor mill. BTW, I have removed my comment that passed on the rumor.