One nation, indivisible under Wal-Mart

IBy Douglas Voigt It’s hardly surprising Wal-Mart has become the epitome of U.S. business and commerce – taught to ambitious young business students as the ideal model of corporate efficiency. With cheap prices, staggering distribution and revenues that place it at the top of the Fortune 500 list, Wal-Mart – which doesn’t actually produce anything – assures Americans, and the rest of the world, that the “business of America is business.” But, the darker side of this monolithic giant demands a more critical eye. Disregard for discerning consumers, environmental concerns, U.S. economic vibrancy and livable wages defines this model of corporate success. Indeed, the business strategy of the United States’ largest profit machine suggests that the of America is rather the aforementioned cultural, environmental and economic blemishes. Yet, the company, with its Maoist “take the countryside first” attitude of expansion, continues its march toward the urban core in hopes of greater profits and less diversity.

A quick stroll through any Wal-Mart reveals what Marshall Blonsky, professor of semiotics at Manhattan’s New School calls “the indifference of equivalence of everything with everything else.” The sterile atmosphere, plastic greetings of poorly paid retirees, expansive parking lots and the unobtrusiveness of its basic blue scheme invites unparalleled ease and passivity in consumption. Numbingly familiar products line its obese aisles. Prices fluctuate mildly, relegating quality and uniqueness as something foreign. Indeed, numbing convention dominates throughout the airy sheds, and shortages of common top-selling items are unheard of.

The products themselves seldom originate in the United States despite this most American of enterprises. Cheap foreign labor produces textiles, electronics, toys, household equipment, etc. and turns Wal-Mart employees into servants of distribution and consumption rather than creative producers. And these servants – known as associates at Wal-Mart – seldom make enough money to purchase any high-quality, particularly unique or American-made product which might exist outside the confines of the Wal-Mart apparatus. One can only hope the foreigners who actually make the products peddled at Wal-Mart will continue to accept payment well below those who ring them up at the register.

The company, with annual revenues of $244 billion, allocates and distributes preproduced goods. Wal-Mart trucks blanket U.S. interstate highways carrying these goods from larger distribution centers to the more than 3,300 domestic retail outlets. While this distribution process is championed as efficient and profitable by business experts, we retch under the pollution created by the masses of trucks distributing Wal-Mart goods. While Wal-Mart claims to have a commitment to conservation – for example, dimming store lights during the day – the basic format of the company is the premiere example and proponent of the U.S. consumer culture so disdained by environmentalists.

When a company starts as one store in Arkansas in 1962, and becomes the largest corporation in the United States, business scholars take notice. According to the business school books, Wal-Mart is a true-life Horatio Alger story of the economic miracles of capitalism. But, when the Wal-Mart machine finally blankets the entire American landscape, including the long-ignored urban core, the aforesaid problems ought to pass through the minds of urban shoppers who shucked their more expensive corner boutique. But the lure of the cheap buy might win out after all, and perhaps Wal-Mart is the epitome of the United States and its business of business.

Douglas Voigt is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. He can be reached at [email protected]