Jewish World Review August 26, 2002 / 18 Elul, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The Wal-Mart culture

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           culture n. the ideas, customs, skills, arts. etc. of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along, as in or to succeeding generations   —   "Webster's"

There are those who love Wal-Mart and those who endure it. (They often wind up marrying each other.)

To call some of us Wal-Mart-averse would be an understatement. My personal vision of Hell is a huge Wal-Mart with no way out, a gigantic maze of stuff, stuff, stuff forever crowding in, while other lost souls run over you with their shopping carts, their glazed eyes registering only what's on the shelves.

Then there are those who see in Wal-Mart not a vision of Hell but the heavenly city itself. Out of respect for equal time, I quote David Brooks, author of "Bobos in Paradise," and the Thorstein Veblen of the '90s:

"You stand at one end of an aisle and look down the length of a Wal-Mart Super Center and you've got affordable plenty as far as the eye can see. There are glitter lava lamps, 'The Prayer of Jabez' inspirational books, Inca-design polyester place mats, Secret Treasures see-through panties, schools of blue gurami in the fish department and DripMoist Vegetable Garden Soaker Systems in the garden department. Here at Wal-Mart all human desires are organized, categorized and shelved -- available in one vast and friendly place, with ample parking."

Yes, precisely. A vision of Hell. It could be the Resident World Controller explaining Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" to the Savage.

So it was with dread that I went to Wal-Mart's annual shareholders' meeting, pep rally, rock concert, Power Point Presentation, political convention and tent revival, expecting a Wal-Mart store on steroids.

Jammed into Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., were some 20,000 selected Associates (never called employees), shareholders, and observers -- including the indispensable financial analysts from Up East. All the elements were in Super Center place as the cast of thousands went into lights, camera, action:

Lee Greenwood sang "God Bless the U.S.A.," quarterbacks from Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana filled the stage, and supermodel Cindy Crawford joined Chairman David Glass in leading the official Wal-Mart cheer. It was something to see, once. David Brooks, that sociologist of merchandising, would've loved it. I did, too, not having to shop for a thing.

The grand Parade of Nations was like the opening of the Olympics. Down the aisle, in alphabetical order, waving their flags, came a delegation from wherever Wal-Mart now has stores -- Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and the U. S. of A. It was like the United Nations, only with a productive purpose.

I left this revival meeting the way I do a Wal-Mart, glad it was over and a little dizzy. The overwhelming impression was of size, growth and American superabundance. At last report, Wal-Mart had 1,614 stores, 1,133 Supercenters, 509 SAM'S CLUBS (always officially capitalized) and 33 Neighborhood Markets just in this country.

On the Fortune 500, Wal-Mart leads all the rest, with $218 billion in sales last fiscal year. Sales increased 14 percent the first quarter of this fiscal year. And just this week, Wal-Mart announced a 26 percent increase during a tough second quarter for retailers in general.

How does Wal-Mart do it? Maybe the explanation can be found in the theme of this year's meeting: The Wal-Mart Culture. Its elements were outlined for the 20,000 the way a Sunday School lesson might break some miraculous scripture into constituent parts. In Wal-Mart's case, the explanation for all its loaves and fishes are: Excellence. Customer service. Integrity. Community involvement. Respect for the individual.

But we all know that every official culture is the reverse image of what it is designed to overcome. The way the Greeks stressed moderation because they were given to passion. The same applies to Wal-Mart's world:

Wal-Mart respects the individual as part of its worldwide uniformity. It seeks excellence, but at the right price. (Its low prices have just been hailed as one explanation for the American economy's remarkable lack of inflation.) It's all for community involvement, but doesn't advertise in the local papers. It dubs its employees Associates the better to keep unions out.

At this year's Wal-Mart super rally, the year of Enron and Andersen, special attention was being paid to integrity, to transparency, to candor. Those are not only intrinsic values, they're much in demand just now by a wary stock market. And all those financial analysts were here shopping. Once again Wal-Mart was putting the customer first.

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