TCS Daily


Wal-Mart Wakes Up

By Ryan H. Sager - January 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Wal-Mart has an image problem. Unfortunately, the company seems to have only just figured this out.

Last week, it launched a nationwide public-relations offensive consisting of full-page ads in national newspapers, aggressive responses to critics in the press and a new Web site, www.walmartfacts.com.

Perhaps an "associate" -- Wal-Mart's version of an "employee" -- wandered into a Barnes & Noble and happened upon Bill Quinn's How Wal-Mart Is Destroying America and the World and What You Can Do About It or Al Norman's The Case Against Wal-Mart.

Regardless, Wal-Mart faces an uphill battle to restore its reputation after years of unanswered assaults. Fortunately for the company, it has a secret weapon: a small country's worth of satisfied shoppers.

The complaints against Wal-Mart are familiar to many by now: The company supposedly pays its workers too little, destroys small businesses, rips apart local communities and -- when it's feeling particularly sinister -- pushes little girls off of tricycles.

What's less well-known is just how popular Wal-Mart is with consumers. Obviously, a lot of people shop there -- about 100 million a week. But do they like it?

A couple of years ago, WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm, did a survey and found that 25 percent of Americans (a plurality) rated Wal-Mart as their favorite store. The firm is now talking about a "Post Wal-Mart World," where Wal-Mart's competitors, including the mom-and-pop stores it's bludgeoned for years, have adapted to (or adopted) its customer-friendly policies.

The good will Wal-Mart has engendered among its customers will be an invaluable asset as it moves to expand into its final frontier: America's big cities. As the Arkansas-based company tries to civilize recalcitrant outposts like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, it will need all the help that it can get to overcome fierce resistance.

Opponents of Wal-Mart fit into two camps.

First, there is the labor movement. Its beef with Wal-Mart comes down to one word: groceries. The country's largest private-sector employer, with 1.2 million workers, is destined to be on unfriendly terms with the AFL-CIO, even under the best of circumstances, simply because it has resisted unionization. But the fact that Wal-Mart has taken over one-fifth of the nation's grocery market -- supermarkets being one of the last union strongholds outside of the government -- has brought the matter to a head. Partnering with local small businesses, the unions are exerting tremendous pressure on city governments to say no to Wal-Mart.

Aiding and abetting the unions in their fight against Wal-Mart are the various urban "experts," Starbucks-phobic grad-student types and other elitists who wouldn't be caught dead in a discount store.

These folks have quite a presence on the Internet. Typical is one Amazon.com reviewer of Bill Quinn's anti-Wal-Mart book. The reviewer, identified only as "Wes," describes the experience of visiting a Wal-Mart as "an auditory, visual and olfactory assault upon the senses ... The stink of fast food wafts throughout." Wes is particularly offended by, "filthy, dirty floors being trod upon by barefoot parents and their screaming, woebegone rats, uh, I mean children."

Don't take too much offense, however, Wal-Mart shoppers. Wes assures readers that he does not "mean entirely to mock those who shop there." They're just victims of the capitalist system.

Yes, there is more than a little bit of elitism and self-interest behind much of the opposition to Wal-Mart. That's not to say that there are no reasonable concerns to be had about the retail giant. It does change the character of the towns it enters. But change in the form of lower prices and more jobs is nothing to be afraid of -- especially in cities with no mythical Main Streets to lose in the first place.

Meanwhile, consumers in these cities -- already beset by the high cost of urban living -- are eager for the low-cost goods.

After I wrote a column in The New York Post recently criticizing our City Council for trying to stop Wal-Mart from opening its first store here, I received a number of letters from New Yorkers sick of their elected leaders putting the concerns of special interests over those of average citizens.

One reader, Doris from Queens, wrote that "Wal-Mart cannot come fast enough." Chris, from Brooklyn, wrote that after having shopped at Wal-Marts outside of the city, he was "turning blue waiting for the big price chopper to open its doors here."

These are the voices of regular New Yorkers, looking for a break. And there's more of them than there are union activists and university radicals. These are the people Wal-Mart can get on its side.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com .

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