The first Wal-Mart opened in Arkansas in 1962, and the company flourished, thanks to the retail imagination and cutthroat practices of founder Sam Walton. Over four decades later, Wal-Mart is a global behemoth, regularly seeing annual sales in excess of $300 billion, and employing more people -- 1.9 million, according to business research company Hoover’s Inc. -- than any other private employer in the world. If Wal-Mart were its own country, its population would exceed 75 other countries as the 146th most populated nation on Earth. The company has not announced any plans to nationalize, but few concepts -- whether revolutionary or appalling -- seem beyond their consideration.
Wal-Mart exports its borderline free market practices to over a dozen countries led by the Rollback Man -- a mascot who “rolls back prices” and who, in every which way, demonstrates a spectacular lack of imagination. If you don’t know what he looks like, simply imagine a 1970s smiley face on the period at the end of this sentence, then remove any residual indication of personality. Leave it to Wal-Mart not only to employ this two-pencil-strokes-shy-of-a-speck mascot, but also to try to trademark it in 2006, claiming they had a lot invested in the smiley face.
Nonetheless, Forbes’ annual rundown of the world’s wealthiest people must feel like a Walton family reunion: The most recent list alone features five Waltons among the top 30 billionaires.
Despite all of its financial successes, the company can’t open a store without enduring -- and overcoming -- a flood of protest groups. These groups might defend the environment or local store owners, or they might defend the store’s future employees, since Wal-Mart’s reputation for unfair labor practices involves sexual discrimination, denying unionization and offering wages so terrible that some employees have to rely on social services to get by.
Love it or hate it, here are five things you didn’t know about Wal-Mart; your friendly neighborhood retail monstrosity.
1- Every week, over one-third of the U.S. population visits a Wal-MartIn a country of over 300 million, that comes to an astonishing 100 million Wal-Mart customers per week (127 million if you believe the figure given on the corporate website). Of course, this does not mean 100 million unique customers; that number is unknown, and for this purpose, immaterial. Either way, that’s about as many Americans who voted in the tight U.S. Presidential elections of 2004 (122 million), and it’s substantially more than the number who could have voted but didn’t (78 million).
2- Hillary Clinton was a member of the Board of Directors for six yearsIn 1986, Wal-Mart welcomed Mrs. Clinton to their board, despite the absence of a vacant seat. At the time, her husband was the governor of Arkansas and she was the state’s First Lady.
Mrs. Clinton served on two other corporate boards during the late 1980s and early 1990s: Little Rock-based TCBY (The Country's Best Yogurt), and she briefly held a position on the board for Lafarge, a huge French industrial company (makers of cement and concrete). She quit all three in 1992, during her husband’s successful presidential run. Curiously, Wal-Mart did not fill her seat on their board when she left.
3- They pioneered a number of discount retail conceptsBy “they,” I really mean Sam Walton, since his innovations go back to the early days. Walton improved customer service by extending store hours, staying open on Sundays or on holidays, and by making certain to keep his shelves well-stocked with a variety of cheap -- low-cost, I mean -- products. Wal-Mart has brought these concepts into the computer age. Today, when an item is scanned for purchase at a cash register, it informs an inventory control system, which works with the items manufacturer to keep the shelves stocked. Wal-Mart was among the first major retailers to install such a system.
Yet Walton’s most profound innovation was discount merchandising itself. Buying from the cheapest wholesale supplier allowed him to lower his prices and sell more; the higher sales volume gave him future negotiating power with the supplier, further lowering his prices.
Sam Walton’s early creativity as an entrepreneur has been eclipsed by an uninspired corporate bully with the muscle to do virtually whatever it wants, wherever it is. But don’t be fooled; it’s not as though Sam would be turning over in his grave at the news. Walton died in 1992, and is as much credited as he is criticized for making Wal-Mart what it is today.
4- Only one organization in the world employs more people than Wal-MartWal-Mart’s 1.9 million employees amounts to the biggest private employer worldwide, but when it comes down to sheer employment -- public, private, governmental or otherwise -- Wal-Mart comes in at No. 2.
They have stiff competition for the number-two spot, as both Indian Railways (IR) and England’s National Health Services (NHS) are very close. However, they’ll need to go on a highly unlikely hiring spree in order to reach this list’s No. 1: the Chinese Army. No, this is not a joke. The number of active troops in the Chinese Army is around 2.25 million -- a mere 325,000 more than Wal-Mart.
5- They prefer part-time employeesAbout one-third of Wal-Mart’s employees work part-time or no more than 28 hours per week. As such, they will naturally have less invested in the company. For example, part-time employees would not see or experience the benefits of a union, favoring Wal-Mart’s well-earned reputation as a union ball-breaker. Their statement on unions is a classic syllogistic fallacy:
“At Wal-Mart, we respect the individual rights of our associates and encourage them to express their ideas, comments and concerns. Because we believe in maintaining an environment of open communications, we do not believe there is a need for third-party representation.”
In other words: Open communication is the function of a union; Wal-Mart’s ideology encourages open communication; therefore, Wal-Mart’s ideology already serves the function of a union.
Wal-Mart’s nebulous definition of unions is not only built on a false premise, but it is also at odds with the one offered by the AFL-CIO, in which unions “solve problems, build stronger workplaces… give workers a voice on the job about safety, security, pay, benefits [and] a voice in government.”
Furthermore, after one year, part-time workers become eligible for a health plan stacked with a massive deductible and whopping premiums, but in light of a 70% per annum turnover rate, most won’t be around that long anyway. That might be for the best since, in their own words, the Wal-Mart medical plan is “designed to protect associates from catastrophic loss and financial ruin.”
Those are big words for poor people; if you’re making so little money that you require social services to supplement your basic needs, how far away are you from financial ruin, anyway?
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