Wal-Mart and the Politics of American Retail

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The current public debate surrounding Wal-Mart fits within a historical context of democratic responses to changes in the retail sector. From Sears Roebuck and the emergence of the mail order industry in the late 19th century to the various chain stores that emerged during the 1920s, the American public has proven wary of retail innovations. Wal-Mart, as the largest retailer in America and the pioneer of the large discount chain store, is currently experiencing this same public wariness regarding its business practices and its role in the American economy. This report attempts to place Wal-Mart within the context of economic change and democratic protest that has replayed itself many times in retail history and to ask whether or not its business is good for America.

Given the high levels of interest in Wal-Mart’s business and the level of criticism it is currently enduring, it is important to reflect on past changes to the American retail sector to better understand how consumers and politicians should react to the perceived challenge that its critics claim it presents today. Beginning with the rise of Sears Roebuck and mail-order catalog houses in the late 19th century, continuing during the pioneering of chain store retail under Woolworth and A&P in the 20th century, and persisting into today with Wal-Mart’s “big-box” discount stores, Americans have always met changes to their retail economy with fear and loathing. Despite the tremendous benefits in value, efficiency, and service that have accrued to the consumer through the passing of each era of retailing, Americans do not react well to such change. Judging from history, capitalism’s creative destruction is felt unusually strongly in retail. The same story has repeated itself through each major change to retailing: Groups mobilize against a vanguard of a new retail paradigm, public campaigns begin to rock the foundations of that enterprise, and eventually legislatures react to restore “normalcy” by regulating that business’ practices, allegedly in the public interest. The tragedy in each instance is that the American consumer loses most in this drive for control over the forces of retail innovation. By placing Wal-Mart in this context, it becomes clear that the current debate raging over its business is not new, but rather part of a cycle of political response to retail innovation.

This report additionally asks the question of whether or not Wal-Mart is good for America, analyzing how Wal-Mart treats its employees, its effect on the American economy, and on small towns and small retailers. The conclusions reached are that Wal-Mart fits very well within a pattern of retail innovation and displacement, by which consumers benefit from new systems of retail, that Wal-Mart is very much in line with the rest of the American retail sector in terms of benefits and pay, and that the dissolution of Main Street retail is not caused by Wal-Mart per se, but is part of a larger overall change in consumer habits. Considering the discount retail sector as a whole, most of the criticisms directed toward Wal-Mart are largely shared throughout the industry.

The growing public distrust over Wal-Mart may have less to do with its business practices and more to do with its relationship with the American public. Largely due to the influence of its founder, Wal-Mart has sought to remain aloof from the attentions of a curious and uncertain American public—a strategy that the company can no longer afford to continue given its size and influence. Today’s large corporations, especially those who represent entire sectors of our economy, cannot forge ahead to do the business of America without first justifying themselves to the people they serve. Effective communication between American business and the American people eases the anxiety that many experience as the next phase of economic change displaces the last. This is a lesson that many different companies and industries have had to learn. As this report details, those companies that fail to engage with the public and inform them of how they benefit the consumer often engender public distrust which can lead to onerous government regulation.

The growing pains of capitalism can exact a toll on the patience and understanding of the American people, especially when their jobs or habits are altered by innovation and change to economic conditions. But, as the history of American retail demonstrates, these pains are often short term, a part of the process of creative destruction that sometimes bewilders but ultimately benefits consumers. We all relate to the economy not only as consumers seeking the best value, but also as citizens with protected rights and political beliefs. Businesses need to recognize this duality to American life and realize that “making friends and making customers are two different jobs—separate but related.” Wal-Mart is succeeding like few other businesses before it in appealing to and supporting the needs of consumers by offering the lowest prices and demanding efficiency in all aspects of its business. An analysis of Wal-Mart’s business demonstrates that it is capable of this level of efficiency while still supporting its employees with wages and benefits on par with the rest of the retail sector. Moreover, Wal-Mart brings great advantages in price and selection, especially to consumers who are most in need of low prices, and maintains high productively across the U.S. economy. Where the company is failing is in its belated recognition of its obligation to engage in open communication with citizens about its business practices and as to why it ultimately provides a benefit to American consumers and to the broader American economy.