Not in the Same 'Big Box'

When the rest of the world frets about America as the only superpower, it doesn't always mean bombs, ships, missiles, and jets.

It also means Wal-Mart.

The world's biggest retailer is taking its "big box" shopping experience to foreign lands, trying to appeal to foreign tastes while stirring up American-style consumer culture and love of bargains.

Europe is the current target of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. You can just hear the knee-knocking of retailers across the Atlantic. Wal-Mart's sales last year ($137.6 billion) were one-tenth of Britain's total economic output. Its warehouse-size "supercenters" are twice as big as Europe's largest "hypermarkets."

Not since D-Day has there been such a Yankee invasion.

But Europe's big retailers are responding with mergers that create giants that rival the American behemoth of bargains. In fact, worldwide, the retail business is becoming concentrated in fewer companies. One estimate is that the top 25 retailers will control 40 percent of the world's retail spending in 10 years.

If these international superstores all follow Wal-Mart's winning formula ("stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap, watch 'em fly"), we may end up with a global homogenization of taste. Just look at how cola has become the drink du monde. (We do hope Wal-Mart's imitators don't follow its choice to sell guns, where it's legal.)

Of course, poor areas of the world, such as in India, will hardly see their village shops fall to Wal-Martization soon. The company's failure in South America, where it lacked a feel for local taste, shows it may have cultural blinders.

Wal-Mart's top European competition, such as Promodes SA of France, has discovered the value of cluttering up its stores with rambling aisle displays that allow shoppers to work through bins of goods. That appeals to customers who are put off by a sterile environment.

Mass marketers have their place in keeping prices low. But we hope the world's small retailers, like many of those in America's small towns, quickly find ways to provide local flavor, personal service, and unique products before we all end up living in one "big box."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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