This Labor Day, mulling over Wal-Mart
Union-backed critics of Wal-Mart are in full throttle to push politicians into echoing their complaints about the retail chain as they stump this fall. What's missing in this organized campaign are tales of how communities have met the Wal-Mart challenge.
Much of this political effort to change the world's largest retailer would be better spent in spreading the lessons of communities and local merchants that have found ways to survive, even thrive, with the big-box discount chains.
Their stories are helpful ones of learning how to adust to the forces of market globalization that Wal-Mart symbolizes with its low-priced, China-made products and union-free, low-wage workplaces.
Many community leaders are using this global tide to help downtown merchants change for the better and to revive a stronger sense of community for a new commercial era, rather than trying to block or alter the mass retailers.
The Wal-Marts of this world, even though they could be better corporate citizens, aren't going away anytime soon (although competition from Internet shopping is hurting them). Their inflation-fighting price advantages are seen by too many consumers as helping them spend less money – despite a debate among economists over the effects of Wal-Mart and its labor practices.
The need for change lies less with Wal-Mart than with the communities that face a potential loss of small businesses to the company's competition – and the loss of the hometown relationships they bring.
Many areas have preempted the "Wal-Mart effect" with campaigns to "buy local" and to persuade merchants to "think outside the big box" by changing their products to more niche items and by improving customer service. Merchants in similar businesses in a region have banded together to buy more goods in larger bulk. Many downtowns have seasonal "walks" with sidewalk entertainment. Some places have tried to set up community-owned department stores. And almost every city or town tries to spiff up its downtown and create more parking to help consumers shop.
Not all such efforts succeed, sadly.
The main goals are to keep more dollars in the community and keep ties of devotion between shoppers and "mom and pop" stores. Consumers who feel a stake in their community are more willing to buy locally and help smaller stores survive. Thriving downtowns generate a social compact. They're meeting places that create their own unmeasured wealth of neighborly spirit.
The newest campaign to help local merchants is in the southern Berkshire hills of Massachusetts. Starting in late September, four banks will sell a currency called "BerkShare" that can be used at participating stores and businesses for what amounts to a 10 percent discount. The merchants then cash the local currency for federal dollars. (The bills are nearly counterfeit proof and display images of local historic figures, such as Norman Rockwell.)
Wal-Mart is forcing communities to rethink what it means to shop in "our town." Will people buy at "Joe's merchandise" as well as the warehouse store two miles out of town?
With the right incentives, consumers can do both.