Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Can't Blame Walmart for This Creep

For a number of reasons, I refuse to shop at Walmart.

But Walmart's controversial opening of its bricks-and-mortar stores tomorrow isn't one of them.  Black Friday creep isn't Walmart's fault.  Consumer demand appears to be driving Thanksgiving's materialistic washout.

Instead, it's the things Walmart could better control that keep me from shopping there.  For example, consider that for a company whose founder used to champion the "Made in America" label, Walmart's incessant cost-cutting has been a key factor in the decline of America's manufacturing sector.

Ahh, the irony of capitalism.  Thanks to globalization, our offshoring of manufacturing jobs likely would have happened eventually anyway, but Walmart was one of the fastest to bolt for the exits and set up shop in China.*  Today, Walmart is that communist country's eighth-largest trading partner, ahead of countries like Russia and Canada.

Then too, Walmart's pioneering big-box strategy has destroyed the central-village fabric of small-town America, decimating a mom-and-pop aesthetic many communities relied upon for their identity.  Then there's Walmart's sloppy history of workers rights abuses.  Not to mention their advertisements, which border on the disingenuous, with hype over loss-leaders creating an illusion that all of their merchandise is priced at similar discounts.

Walmart's Strategy? Audacity

Of course, most of these problems I have with Walmart come not from any brilliance in their corporate strategy, but basically from the fact that their corporate strategy isn't as brilliant as it seems.  You see, Walmart's success has come from piecing together opportunities in merchandising volume, technology, shifting cultural priorities, and international logistics in a way no previous retailer had.  It's not hard getting customers to buy stuff when they think your prices are lower.  What's hard is achieving everything necessary to appeal to the lowest common denominator, both in terms of what your customers want to pay, and in terms of what you and your vendors have to do to achieve those low prices.

Revolutionary?  Maybe in some ways, but mostly, Walmart's is an evolutionary concept.  In mass-market retailing, low prices drive business.  So Walmart took that obvious maxim, applied a strict regimen of extracting low costs from their vendors, rigidly disciplined their own corporate expenses, and delivered products to their customers at prices that reflect all of those low costs.  This gives them room to make a bit of profit per item that extrapolates, thanks to volume selling, into a huge money machine.

It's still a true capitalist success story, and it's hard to deny them the credit for having the audacity for hammering all of the pieces into place to make it work.  It's not like no other retailer ever dreamed of being able to do what Walmart has done.  Or that Walmart doesn't have stiff competition at its own game, now that consumers have come to expect "everyday low prices" no matter where they shop.

Don't get me wrong:  saving money is a good thing.  Unfortunately, however, the money we save in one place sometimes gets spent elsewhere.

Granted, the costs incurred by the towns in which Walmart operates can seem obscure.  The loss in manufacturing jobs, for one.  Then there are costs in terms of poor land use management between empty old downtowns and commercial sprawl along freeways, once-prosperous shop owners being priced out of business, and even the creation of mini-monopolies in some stretches of rural America where Walmart is the only store for miles around.  Sure, now Americans, no matter where they live, have access to 100 brands of toothpaste at $1 a tube.  And some people think that's progress.  But is it?

Just because consumers have answered that question in the affirmative doesn't mean they're right.  And just because consumers will probably flock to Walmart on Thanksgiving Day doesn't mean the holiday itself is on the slippery slope to obsolescence.  Hey - at least I can hope!  Just because I think Black Friday creep into what's being called "Gray Thursday" is a bad thing, I'm not blaming Walmart for taking the next logical step down its path towards lowest common denominators by giving customers more time to buy stuff.  I realize businesses like Walmart operate on a speeding train philosophy:  it's hard to stop once it's started.

The Speeding Train Philosophy of Business

Try telling that, however, to workers at Walmart stores across the country who are fussing this year about having to work on Thanksgiving.  They claim the company is depriving them of quality family time on one of the most celebrated American holidays on the calendar.  Some have even threatened to picket their stores tomorrow in protest.  Although no Walmart store has unionized employees, rumors abound that retail union organizations are helping to foment this discord at the nation's largest retailer in hopes of winning inroads among its dissatisfied employees.

On the one hand, it's easy to feel sorry for people who have to work on Thanksgiving.  Until you realize that anybody who works for any retailer these days knows that their schedule is set by the company.  It will likely include nights, weekends, and holidays.  People who work for discount retailers like Walmart should not be surprised when their employer allows work-creep to consume holidays Americans used to consider sacrosanct.  Remember the speeding train philosophy?  Walmart abandoned American manufacturing, and it will abandon anything else in conflict with its bottom line.

And, frankly, by voting with their expendable income, consumers have said that's the way they want it.

True, working at Walmart is no glamor job, and you'd like to think your employer values your loyalty to the company enough to give you little favors, like having Thanksgiving off.  But this is Walmart, the biggest player in America's penny-pinching retail industry.  If American retailing ever had a golden age, at least in terms of how well it rewarded its salespeople, that was over long ago.

And to be accurate, Walmart first opened on Thanksgiving last year, so this year's schedule should come as no surprise, even if last year's did.  And it's not just Walmart that is opening tomorrow.  Even upscale retailer Lord and Taylor is opening its flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue for the first Thanksgiving ever.

Now, if any employees have a right to gripe about being open on Thanksgiving, it's the staff at this, one of American retailing's legendary granddaddies.  Tradition and reserve are the hallmarks of Lord and Taylor, and many of the store's employees have likely relied on the consistency of the brand's embrace of convention.  "What is the world coming to," they must be wondering, while New York's other venerable department stores eye their somewhat dowdy peer with a mixture of skepticism and resignation.  You know they're only opening for New York's teeming throngs of international tourists, who, since everything else will be closed in Manhattan tomorrow, have no patriotic compunction to spend the day feasting on turkey.  As much as I'd hate to be a Lord and Taylor employee tomorrow, it's hard to see how management's idea will flop.

Perhaps it sounds crass to say, but if you don't want to work on Thanksgiving, you shouldn't be in retail any more.  And at the end of the day, you can't blame management for that.  As long as consumers value money and material possessions over family time, holidays will only continue to wither in terms of the respect retailers give them.

Walmart, Lord and Taylor, and any other retailer open today don't cause consumerism.  They simply feed it.

Of course, some shoppers claim that blitzing the brick-and-mortar stores on holidays actually constitutes good family time, since they do so in groups of family members.  Some even joke about the family that shops together staying together, although I doubt extended shopping hours provides as much a balm for hurting families as a relief valve so we all don't have to spend the entire day in the same house.

Then again, wasn't it the fashionable Mrs. Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island who purred, "anyone who says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

*Update - 11/27/12:  Not only China, but Bangladesh, where 112 workers at a factory owned by one of Walmart's suppliers died in a fire last week.  Walmart denies any culpability.

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