Move over, Enron. Wal-Mart is the new punching bag.
In the run-up to elections, America's top employer takes it on the chin for driving US jobs abroad and trampling workers at home. Should it share the blame?
The call went out from the White House soon after Sept. 11, and tickled the ears of the shopping-aisle rank and file. "Consume," was the message, "and show capitalism to be unbowed." Plenty of Americans went out and spent money, urged on by a new call as the holidays neared.Skip to next paragraph
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One big beneficiary: Wal-Mart.
That year, the discounter rang up $1.25 billion on the day after Thanksgiving, setting a single-day record for retail sales that it has since eclipsed, and adding to its list of superlatives. It's now the world's largest corporation in terms of sales - nearing $250 billion a year, comparable to the economy of Sweden. It is America's largest private employer. Its profit? Up a healthy 8.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003, the company reported Thursday.
But juggernauts invite scrutiny, and Wal-Mart has felt searing lights from many angles - most recently the very public forum of a US presidential campaign.
Outlining the travails of American workers, several Democratic candidates have been piling on a scorn that previously seemed reserved for Enron. And earlier this month, US Rep. George Miller (D) of California issued a report citing the "hidden price" to US taxpayers of what it calls the inadequate wages and benefits of many in Wal-Mart's workforce.
So does Wal-Mart deserve its punching-bag status?
"It's a complex issue," says economist Dale Neef, author of "Managing Corporate Reputation and Risk." "It's almost more about its size - and its effectiveness" at maximizing profit.
Beloved by many consumers, respected by some business strategists, vilified by labor groups and antiglobalization activists, Wal-Mart has become "the greatest business enigma of our time," says Richard Hastings, retail-sector analyst for Bernard Sands, an advisory firm in New York.
Consider the track record on which Wal-Mart's reputation is built.
Aggressively maintaining its "always low prices, always" mantra, the Arkansas-based discounter is known to play hardball with suppliers, pressing them to operate with the slimmest of profit margins by leveraging the sheer volume of wholesale goods it buys. Lately, Wal-Mart has reportedly cut suppliers some slack on prices, though observers debate whether the move reflects an awareness of market realities or just a bid to deflect criticism that its tactics force US jobs overseas.
In its business-to-business dealings, the tough, expansionist chain is, in fact, often credited with "a fundamental integrity," as a retail-industry insider told Fast Company magazine in December.
And where it meets the public, its happy-face logo is hardly contrived. Wal-Mart stocks a staggering range of products - priced, as they say, to move. Buyers of hubcaps, Ho-Hos, and hunters' camouflage celebrate the store. And they're not alone.
Last spring, Wal-Mart won praise from Christian groups for banning Maxim and other racy "laddie mags." In November, a veterans' group lavished its Corporate Patriotism Award on the chain for its moves to support National Guard enlistees who work at its stores, and the community of veterans at large. A Los Angeles economist recently opined that the city's bid to ban Wal-Mart Supercenters would keep much-needed tax revenue out of the coffers and a low-cost shopping option out of poor neighborhoods.
Other assessments, though, are scathing - beginning well before this election season. Labor-rights advocates slam Wal-Mart, a rebuffer of unions, with charges that it overworks low-wage employees, practices sex discrimination, knowingly uses illegal immigrant labor (charges that Wal-Mart denies), and lays waste to downtown commercial districts. They derisively cite "dead peasant" life-insurance policies taken out on workers, with Wal-Mart as beneficiary.
Still, while not defending any illegal acts, Mr. Hastings and others say some of that ire may be misplaced.