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Review Of Wal-Mart: Bully Of Bentonville

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In Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville author Anthony Bianco explains the love-hate relationship of consumers and the corporation. First, I must say that this was an enjoyable read! All of the elements and statistical data that a historian looks for are present B Bianco=s anti-Wal-Mart slant notwithstanding. Wal-Mart tells the story of master retailer Sam Walton B who himself may have been the bully of Bentonville B and the Wal-Mart corporation. Bianco recounts the elements which made Walton so loved and innovative (e.g., omni-directional integration, self-service checkout and automated performance monitoring) and his corporation so reviled. He also delves into Wal-Mart=s battles against unionization, their fair trade practices and importation of foreign-made goods. Finally, he explores the real sociological cost of Wal-Mart=s low prices.

Bianco=s approach in analyzing Wal-Mart is an interesting one. By combining hard facts and arguments with homespun anecdotes, he is able to capture the reader into sympathizing with his vitriolic attacks of the retail giant. In chapter one, Bianco lays out the objective evidence against Wal-Mart as if he were a prosecutor going after a murderer on trial. Chief among Bianco=s arguments is Wal-Mart=s unabashed violations of laws and business ethics. Wal-Mart=s arrogance, Bianco says, is Arooted . . . in its presumption that selling vast quantities of cut-rate merchandise entitles it to represent[]@ the American consumer. (p. 3). Bianco thoroughly notes Wal-Mart=s own figures, government reports and employee Atestimony@ in building his case against Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart=s rap sheet is a mile long when it comes to union busting, child-labor law violations, overtime pay violations, minimum wage issues, gender and racial biases, community crushing, small business pilfering, safety concerns such as locking in employees despite the fact emergency personnel would be locked out, and I=m sure if Bianco were to look close enough he may find an actual murder or two.

On the defense side is H. Lee Scott, Jr., who Alooks every inch the chief executive of America=s biggest and most powerful corporation.@ (p. 1). Scott is quick to tout (and justifiably so) Wal-Mart=s achievements, mainly in providing Americans B especially those on tight budgets B with quality goods at low prices. In 2004, Wal-Mart=s prices helped Americans save about $900 each while boasting revenues in the hundreds of billions. Bianco writes that AWal-Mart is larger than any company has ever been.@ (p. 9 (my emphasis)). What is wrong with that? Is this not the goal of capitalism? Any student of economics knows that the main goal of the officers of a corporation is increasing shareholder profit, and there is no doubt that Wal-Mart has been able to accomplish this goal year after year. Bianco also mentions that an estimated 138 million shoppers per week visit Wal-Mart=s 6000-plus chain of stores and outlets worldwide. As for the violations, Scott=s retort is that Wal-Mart=s critics B Agreedy labor unions, inefficient supermarket chains, and other Wal-Mart opponents@ B are twisting the data to serve their own needs.

Is Wal-Mart really the monster that Bianco and others claim, or is it the product of ultra-efficiency? If it is a monster, then its Dr. Frankenstein would be Sam Walton. In chapters 2 and 3, Bianco lays off the attacks against the corporation by putting a face and folksy back story to the legend of Wal-Mart. Sam Walton was the epitome of the rugged individual; pure Horatio Alger. Since his early days, Walton was consumed with the retailing business and through much trial and error was able to create a monolithic chain of stores. He had an obsession with efficiency, was penny pinching and possessed a financial acumen found only in a Wall Street stuffed shirt. However, he was also charismatic, charming and motivational.

Walton=s experience during the Great Depression left him with a drive to achieve more. There is no doubt that the American Dream was real for Walton and he aimed to capture, bottle and sell it (at a markdown, of course). The unique thing about Walton, which few captains of industry possess or demonstrate, was his desire to attain and cultivate wealth rather than spend it on opulence. Spending B personal or charitable B was a concept averse to his core principles. I feel that Walton really relished the role of entrepreneur and there is good reason why Bianco uses Rockefeller as a comparison. Much like Rockefeller, Walton enjoyed growing his business, eating up the competition and finding the cheaper-faster-better product; the only notable difference was his affability. Only the hurdle of unionization could slow Walton and he aimed to kick it down rather than jump over it.

Unions have been the main opponent and the bane of Wal-Mart=s existence. Bianco=s accounts of attempts to unionize the retailer begins to turn the tide of public opinion against Wal-Mart. Historians of America=s labor movement will note that unionization has been the biggest bone of contention for capitalists. Unions put a human face on the otherwise uncaring machine of capitalism. In Wal-Mart=s case, unions are a hindrance to perfect efficiency and Walton would never give up efficiency at any cost. Wal-Mart hires an estimated 600,000 employees per year with an annual turnover rate exceeding 50%, one would be hard pressed to not find disgruntled people in that large mass. It is important to note that the only way a company can directly control its profits is in labor costs. As Bianco notes, Wal-Mart has become a master at controlling this particular bottom line and it is this area in which it racks up the most hatred and



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