I doubt any of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court has ever shopped at a Walmart. That probably helped the retail giant when the Court dismissed the largest employment discrimination case in U.S. history last month. But the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case brought by 1.5 million female employees hardly makes Walmart a paragon of good business.
The best prices in town really only add up to big profits for Walmart shareholders. Annual sales total more than $300 billion per year. In 20 years, the price of Walmart stock (NYSE:WMT) has risen almost tenfold. But Sam Walton’s Frankenstein has killed off countless small businesses and destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Based on revenues, Walmart is the largest company on the Fortune 500. The company employs 2.1 million workers worldwide — 25 times more than Exxon/Mobil. Roughly 90 percent of Americans live within 15 miles of a Walmart.
Walmart’s 4,424 stores in America are supplied by 10 million 40-foot containers that cross the Pacific each year from Singapore, Shanghai and Shenzhen, China, to the Long Beach/Los Angeles port. It is estimated that Americans spend $36 million at Walmart every hour of every day, almost all of it on cheaply produced goods made in Asia.
But this fact flabbergasted me most: Walmart imports more goods from China than the total imports from the U.K. or Russia. That makes Walmart a huge contributor to America’s trade deficit, an imbalance that is eroding America’s economic prospects.
In the book The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, Nelson Lichtenstein writes: “(Wal-Mart has created an) imagined community where economic and moral lives are interconnected and virtuous. The fact that Wal-Mart itself contributed to the conditions that lead to so much social and familial instability may be irrelevant to those who shop and work there. Indeed, the low pay, high turnover, awkward shifts, and general precariousness that have become the norm.”
My Walmart Story
Last Christmas, I went to Walmart with my wife, Angie, who spent a pile of money there on decorations. Since I bought my Timex at that store the previous summer, I took it the jewelry section to see if they could fix the light that no longer worked. The clerk took it apart in front of me, then gave it back and said, sorry, the watch was OK but the light was broken. Not a problem. That is, until I got home and looked at my watch. It had stopped.
I got in my car and drove through Christmas traffic. This time, I got a different clerk. The clerk that stopped my watch had gone home.
I told the new clerk what had happened, and I could tell she was getting cranky.
“It’s not like we stopped your watch,” she declared.
“It’s exactly like that,” I said.
I knew she wasn’t going to budge. She kept insisting that no Walmart clerk under any circumstances would ever take any watch apart. She repeated this even though she was standing beside the very instrument that had dismantled my watch just an hour earlier.
Finally, I noticed the security camera directly above us.
“Check your cam for 2:55 p.m. That’s when the watch stopped, and that’s what time you will see that the clerk took my watch apart.”That is when she accused me of running a scam to get free batteries out of the store. I told her I was not making a living running around the city stealing Timex batteries from Walmart stores. I went on and explained that it’s like taking your car to get washed, and then it won’t start.
That’s when she told me she knew all about cars because she drove a Lincoln and added that she used to manage seven retail stories where she repaired “nice watches. Rolexes!”
I told her I didn’t care if she once polished the Crown Jewels; I wasn’t leaving until that Timex started ticking.
Finally, my wife, Angela, came along. One of her friends is married to the manager at the store. Angela politely mentioned the manager’s last name.
To which the clerk screeched, “What’s his first name!?”
Only after Angie calmly pronounced the manager’s name, proving she was not a liar, did the clerk finally realign the battery on my watch. It took her less than a minute. As she handed it back to us, she said: “You wouldn’t believe the kind of people we get in this store.”
“She means people like us,” Angela said.
When I started telling friends my Walmart story, I learned that many had their own, some worse than mine.
I decided I would do some research and not let one cranky clerk sway my opinion. I phoned the public library and asked them to set aside some books for me on Walmart. I was shocked to find they had held seven books, all of them to varying degrees negative about the mega-retailer. In fact, one of them — How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the World) by Bill Quinn — is rife with horror stories told by shoppers and employees.
Quinn’s book makes other criticisms, too. It points to a 1993 article by The Wall Street Journal that reported on the predatory ways of the retailer. According The Journal, Walmart would lavish money on small-town newspapers with full-page ads. After the company had run its competitors out of business, it cut its advertising budget to the bone. Publishers were left to suffer along with many others in the community.
Dana Meadows, the late founder of the Sustainability Institute, pointed out a Massachusetts study which stated that for every 140 jobs Walmart adds, an estimated 230 higher-paying jobs are destroyed.
You can read the report here.
I am skeptical of this study. But you cannot argue that Walmart has hurt countless family businesses. In Quinn’s book is this 2003 letter from Doug Hartig, the CEO of America’s second-oldest continuously operated family drug chain:
“I’m am a third generation pharmacist, fifty-three years old, with a wife and two great high school boys at home. I spend about half of my time battling Wal-Mart in some way, shape or forum every day. In a nutshell I’ve lost one store to Wal-Mart and they’re after me again.”
Hartig had built a spanking-new store in Galena, Ill., after lots of politicking and hard work. It turned out that Walmart liked his location so much that it decided to build a mega-store right beside his. For three years, Hartig fought to stop the building of that Superstore. It opened in 2005.
Hating Walmart Doesn’t Make Me A Liberal
Walmart is reminiscent of how John D. Rockefeller ran Standard Oil a century ago. He would come into an area and, if he couldn’t buy an oil refinery on the cheap, J.D. would build a Standard Oil refinery next door and sell gasoline below cost. That is, until the other refinery went out of business. Then, Standard Oil would jack up its prices.
On the subject of oil and Walmart, fiction writer Douglas Coupland had this to say: “If I think too much about all of those Chinese factories where all the stuff in a Wal-Mart is made, I get that woozy feeling you get when you see ducks covered in crude oil.”
I understand that a great many Conservatives like Walmart. My grudge against the retailer is not because its female workers didn’t get the Supreme Court to hear their case or because Walmart is anti-union.
Mostly, I don’t like Walmart because it has become so big that it doesn’t care about its customers. America was made great because businesses used to have a heart. My Walmart experience told me that it doesn’t give a damn. Its philosophy: “We got another billion where that guy came from.”
Yours in good times and bad,
Editor, Myers’ Energy & Gold Report
Note: The Walmart facts mentioned in the column come from WSJ.com, the books mentioned above and this website.