Walmart: A Study in Wretched Excess

Photograph Source: Walmart Corporate – CC BY 2.0

“The dogs bark, but the caravan passes.”
—Arab proverb

Years ago, when I first began writing indignant and wildly emotional polemics about Walmart, Inc., attacking the mega-retailer for its virulent, unethical and borderline illegal anti-union policies, the corporation (with headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas) had roughly 8,500 stores in 15 countries, a figure that, even then, seemed not only overly ambitious but near pathological.

It got worse. As of last month, Walmart has 11,368 stores worldwide. Spread over 27 countries, they conduct their business under 55 different names. There are more than 4,700 stores right here in the U.S., the hourly employees of which are underpaid and under-benefitted, yet terrified of seeking to improve their lot because any talk of joining a labor union is likely to get them fired.

For the record, Walmart, Inc. is the largest private employer in the United States, the largest private employer in Mexico (as Walmex), and the third largest private employer in Canada. Indeed, the company is not only the largest private employer in the world, it is the largest private employer in the history of the world, and the largest private employer the world will ever know. No retailer will ever be bigger. We are watching history being made.

In order for the next statistic to make any sense, we need to be reminded of the Bob Dylan song lyric, “The times they are a-changin.” We might also take note of counterculture hero Paul Krassner’s sobering observation, “If life isn’t a mystery, then what the fuck is it?” Consider: Walmart—the epitome of unbridled capitalism—now has, count ‘em, 443 stores in what was once quaintly referred to as “Communist China.”

If the irony of that doesn’t make your eyes water, you’re either blind and deaf, or a presidential candidate. Chairman Mao himself has gone from being the country’s venerated political and sociological prophet to having his likeness mass-produced as a bobble-head. The Law of the Marketplace: If it can be made of plastic, China will produce it, Walmart will sell it, and the world will buy it. Buy it, use it, then throw it away.

Still, despite Walmart’s conspicuous success, its record isn’t unblemished. After having set up shop in Germany in 1997, the retailing juggernaut was forced to withdraw in 2006, abandoning the country’s lucrative $370 billion retail market.

Even though this happened thirteen years ago, the German debacle still reverberates. After all, as anyone who’s been paying attention can tell you, Walmart rarely fails in these endeavors. Yet, the record will show that while the nominal Communist regime of the People’s Republic of China embraced Walmart’s corporate philosophy, the Germans rejected it. Though no one can say precisely why the venture failed, there’s no shortage of theories.

One theory is that Germany was simply too “green” for a slash-and-burn outfit like Walmart, with its plastic bags and plastic junk Another is that Walmart could never get comfortable with the pro-labor culture of Germany. Unions are respected in Germany. Another is that because German consumers prefer small neighborhood stores rather than the sprawling, impersonal chains, it was a bad fit from the get-go.

While there is probably some validity to all of these explanations, three additional cross-cultural idiosyncrasies have been identified as determining factors.

One issue was the chanting. Walmart employees are required to start their shifts by engaging in group chants and stretching exercises, a practice intended to build morale and instill loyalty. Fiendish as it sounds, Walmart employees are required to stand in formation and chant, “WALMART! WALMART! WALMART!” while performing synchronized calisthenics.

This symbolic display of corporate fascism didn’t go over well with the Germans. Maybe they found it embarrassing or silly for adults to behave in this manner; or maybe they resented it being mandatory. Or maybe they found this oddly aggressive descent into group-think too reminiscent of other rallies…like the one in Nuremberg several decades earlier.

Another issue was the smiling. Walmart requires its checkout people to flash smiles at customers after bagging their purchases. Plastic bags, plastic junk, plastic smiles. But because the German people don’t usually smile at total strangers, the phenomenon of Walmart employees grinning like jackasses not only didn’t impress consumers, it unnerved them. One German consumer reported that he found these phony smiles “disturbing.”

The third issue was the “ethics problem.” As hard as it is to believe, back in 1997, Walmart not only required its employees to spy on fellow workers (and report any misconduct), but it prohibited sexual intimacy among its employees.

Apparently, while the folks in Bentonville had no problem with screwing the environment, they couldn’t abide employees doing it to each other. Alas, in 2005, a German court struck down Walmart’s “ethics code.” It was deemed illegal. And Walmart abandoned the country a year later. Coincidence?

In any event, while the failed German experiment was a blow to the company’s pocketbook and pride, it didn’t hold them back. Walmart is constantly trolling for new markets. Onward! Call me a sentimental fool, but I can visualize the day when Kim Jong-Un bobble-heads are being sold in Pyongyang.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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