Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Wal-Mart Effect

I just finished Charles Fishman's book The Wal-Mart Effect. It is a fascinating and potentially ground-breaking look at the retail giant (of giants). Fishman is a seasoned business journalist who, along with his wife, started asking questions about Wal-Mart, which lead him to several different parts of the world in search of answers.

  • How much do we actually know about the ways the company works?
  • What are Wal-Mart's relationships with suppliers like? How do those relationships affect the market and our economy?
  • How much influence and control does Wal-Mart have over our national economy and the global economy?
  • What does the opening of a Wal-Mart actually do to a community, particularly low-income small towns?
  • Just how does it get those "always low prices"? Are those prices worth the consequences?

This book is not simply a rant against Wal-Mart. It is not some left-wing diatribe against consumerism (although ample criticism is there). It is, instead, a thorough investigation of the world's largest company, its practices, and most importantly, its effects on our economy and our lives.

Fishman makes it clear throughout the book that Wal-Mart's values are those of classic Americana - a diligent work ethic, frugality, modesty, unpretentiousness. It's is not a company so cut-throat as to be only about the bottom line (i.e., profit). No, Wal-Mart's bottom line is provide its customers with the lowest prices possible. Wal-Mart is there for the little guy, there to save him money.

But it comes with some interesting consequences. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is conflicted about Wal-Mart and about the corporate high-jacking of our culture. Whether you like Wal-Mart or hate it, this book will give you plenty to think about. The final conclusion isn't "Don't shop at Wal-Mart." Fishman leaves it up to his audience to decide what to do next. He does tell us to ask questions.

After finishing the book, I know now more than ever that I do not want to shop at Wal-Mart. Maybe as other people read this book, we will start a dialogue and find a renewed sense of creativity that will allow us to change our culture and to loosen the corporate grip of control on our lives.

For now, I will leave you with Fishman's closing statement at the end of the book and encourage you all to read it and think about it.

"Wal-Mart is not just a store, or a company, or a powerful institution. It is also a mirror. Wal-Mart is quintessentially American. It mirrors our own energy, our sense of destiny, our appetite for bigness and variety and innovation. And Wal-Mart is not just a reflection of American society. It is a mirror of us as individuals. In a democracy, our individual ambivalence about such a concentrattion of economic power, even when that power is ostensibly on our side, is a signal. Both as individuals and as a society we have an obligation to answer the unanswered questions about Wal-Mart. Otherwise we have surrendered control -- of our communities, of our economy, of some measure of our destiny -- to decisions made in Betonville [Arkansas, the Wal-Mart headquarters]." Charles Fishman, The Wal-Mart Effect, page 247.


Heather P said...

Gina, what a wonderful post for me to read today. As an newly unemployed individual today I was conflicted about my shopping. I new that Wal-Mart had the lower price, but moral unrest kept me from making the trek there for my needs. I felt ashamed to shop there and pay into their unethical practices that I've heard of. Its like a Catch22. I can't afford to not shop at Wal-Mart, but I can't afford to shop there as well.

The Lazy Editor said...

It is a tough call. Wal-Mart isn't solely responsible for the corporate take over of America. It's not even responsible for the proliferation of chain stores filling our landscapes.

But it has had an integral role in those things happening. I appreciated Charles Fishman's investigation to find out more about the company, and now, more than ever, I know I don't want to shop there, no matter how much I'm saving.