THE BLOG

Quit Picking On Wal*Mart

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

In writing this post, I find my more than 20 years of experience as a loyal Wal*Mart shopper, resident of communities ably served by the giant retailer and my years covering this company for a national business publication, clashing with my economically and socially progressive beliefs. Beliefs that you have often read here, and will, I hope, continue to do so.

Still, I have to part company with my fellow liberals on this hatred of Wal*Mart.

Before I state my case why those who snarl at the mere mention of the name Wal*Mart need to look at contravening factors, I believe that some of the criticism Wal*Mart gets is because they are:

*Big, and so many of we liberals are pre-configured to root for the underdog;
*Rural-based, with much of their positive impact not seen by so many of us who have never been to these towns where Wal*Mart has been a postive force for two decades,sometimes more;
*Southern-based, which as a liberal and a former Southerner I can tell you, elicits big-city snobbery;
*Decidely untrendy, both in merchandise (I mean, they ain't IKEA, or Whole Foods, or the Pottery Barn,even Target) and where they choose to locate their stores (away from gentrifying shopping districts and out where the folks with the fish and Support our Troops Bumper stickers live);
*Villified as a place to work by authors such as Barbara Ehrenreich- who only worked there for research on her book "Nickel and Dimed"- and unlike so many Wal*Mart associates with no other practical work alternatives, could have bailed from her gig and gone back to her world of pricey public speaking engagements and literary lunches with one "I'm outta here" bail-out phone call.
*Are known to practice authoritarian store management policies that elicit "I'd never work there" snarls from so many of us who by education or skillset have other, far more collegial employment alternatives.

Let me state my beliefs first. Wal*Mart is certainly no enlightened corporate citizen. When it comes to employee salaries and benefits, they are decidely non-benificent. There's no place in our society for gender and race discrimination - practices that Wal*Mart critics and litigants accuse the company of. Yes, they buy giant quantities of goods from foreign suppliers who pay poor wages in their home nations. True, small mom and pop retailers have often been unable to compete with Wal*Mart on price, and there are vacant downtown storefronts that seemingly would attest to this.

But I do believe there are counterarguments to at least some of these criticisms.

Wal*Mart pays employees less than many comparable retailers. The website Wal-Mart Watch notes that Costco,for example, pays their employees 65% more on average than Wal-Mart. Yet I question the appropriateness of this comparison. Wal*Mart has a far bigger footprint in rural and small-town America- where expenses are considerably less - than does Costco. For those who know Wal*Mart's legacy territory well, a better comparison would be Wal*Mart and stores such as Family Dollar, Dollar General and Big Lots.

Wal*Mart really should provide health insurance to all employees, both full and part time. Yet I am convinced that for many budget-stressed families who shop at Wal*Mart, the cost of health insurance- is that much more affordable because of savings they are able to incur as Wal*Mart shoppers. Estimates are that a family of four spends $100 to $125 a week on groceries. A UBS Warburg study finds that Wal*Mart grocery prices are on average, 17 to 20 percent lower than competing chains. For a $125-a-week grocery family, that's $25 a week or roughly $100 a month. Health insurance costs much more than that of course, but when that $450 monthly health insurance premium comes due, there are families that would rather have $500 in their checking account to cover the payment rather than $400- which they might have if they shopped at a pricier food retailer.

Speaking of health care, I wonder how many economically distressed families without a Wal*Mart associate in their number avail themselves of city, county and state-provided social services that - without funds collected from Wal*Mart-generated sales and real estate taxes - would find budget-pressed social service agencies either unable to provide these services or make needy citizens wait longer for them.

You should also understand that as employer of some 1.2 million Americans, Wal*Mart has revitalized many communities that suffered from unemployment before Wal*Mart came to town. Not as a result of their arrival. I can point out to you many rural communities, rendered impoverished by shuttered coal mines, paper mills, and the like- where Wal*Mart's arrival has helped revitalize the community.

Racial and gender imbalance in employment is an abomination. If Wal*Mart stores are individually and collectively guilty of this, redress and repair has to happen. Yet I do know that once again, income from Wal*Mart sales and real estate taxes are in many communities the largest private sector contributor to local school systems that are striving to produce graduates who can thrive in a color-blind economy. I also have to believe that many Wal*Mart employees are women and minorities who are attending community colleges part-time, but would not be able to afford tuition without their Wal*Mart salary.

On the other end of the demographic scale, I know, and have personally seen, evidence of senior citizen employment at many Wal*Mart's. Whether it is the familiar Wal*Mart "greeter," or cashier, this is a company that unlike so many others, tends to embrace the life experiences of older folks as an asset. I would rather be helped by a courteous and knowledgeable 68-year-old Wal*Mart greeter rather than go to the clothing store and try to pry an apathetic 19 year-old slacker salesperson away from her cell phone to help me locate the slacks.

I have argued passionately against outsourcing, in this forum and others. And yes, there are those American manufacturers who have lost out to foreign competition immeasurably helped by Wal*Mart's merchandise buying practices. Yet not even factoring in the fact that Wal*Mart regularly buys from some 68,000 American suppliers, the specter of say, a U.S.-based woolen mill closed down because their customers were driven out of competition by Wal*Mart denies the fact that in many communities, these mills were long gone before Wal*Mart arrived. Or even existed, for that matter.

And what about the Mom and Pop retailers in the town square, who have been driven out of business because Wal*Mart built a store at the town's edge? Listen, I am an entrepreneur myself, and I hate it when people's businesses fail. But such failures are often attributable to more than one factor.

Is Wal*Mart really the only villian in these instances? True, Wal*Mart's pricing has driven some Mom and Pop retailers out of business. But it strikes me that many of the same critics who bash Wal*Mart for causing this to happen readily shop at the giant electronics retailer, office supply store or home supplies mega establishment who has put the independently owned tv repair shop, stationery store or lumberyard out of business.

Well, suburban flight has long preceded Wal*Mart's arrival in many towns. I can think of towns that lost their cores as far back as the 1950s and 1960s, long before Wal*Mart arrived, or even existed. At the same time, though, I know of lots of towns that have revitalized their cores for specialty retail, arts, or topographically relevant recreational uses.

The sweatshop charge is troubling, but I have long believed that in some of these nations, such employment is, tragically, the only stable, viable and legal job option for unskilled and semi-skilled labor. I don't need to state the social consequences suffered when that option is not available.

Wal*Mart can do better in lots of areas. When they are wrong, they need to be held to account.

Still, I believe that on balance, Wal*Mart is a positive economic and social force not deserving of blanket condemnation.