Return Of The Empire

Suddenly Wal-Mart has figured out that that bad publicity hurts the bottom line.

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is tired of critics who say it is a behemoth bent on destroying small-town America, driving down wages and shipping jobs to foreign sweat shops.

Wal-Mart, Fortune magazine’s “most admired company,” is also among the most sued. Dozens of cases claiming sex discrimination and wage violations have stained its image. Editorials deplore how low-paid Wal-Mart workers must sign up for welfare to make ends meet.

Even men’s magazine Playboy got in on the act, calling Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters the “epicenter of retailing’s evil empire.”

But after years of abiding unflattering views, the empire is striking back with a tough new public relations strategy.

“No one likes to hear someone say something negative about their family,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark. “There are some things out there that are totally inaccurate, and we’re looking to set the record straight.”

My beef with Wal-Mart is that the stores I’ve been to in the Washington D.C. area look, and in some cases smell, awful. Suburbia has its advantages, and one of them is an abundance of choice. The contrast between a visit to Wal-Mart and a visit to Target is vivid. Target, even during the busy holiday season, is visually appealing and clean. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, has the feel of a concession line at a tractor pull.

I’ve been reading Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style (a gift from Captain Ed), and Wal-Mart is clearly on the wrong side of the style divide. At low cost warehouse stores, such as Costco, we implicitly abandon the look of a department store in favor of a bulk warehouse setting. Amenities are kept to a minimum and value is the order of the day. Target, on the other hand, has carved a niche in the value retailers by introducing low cost – high style clothing and furnishings. If you’re looking for a company that understands the substance of style, Target would be a prime example.

Wal-Mart straddles the murky area between Costco and Target, and not in a good way. They seem to have the worst features of both Costco and Target if not by choice, then at least in practice. Disinterested cashiers, long lines, merchandise of questionable quality (especially the furniture), and an ugly and confusing layout are the signature marks of Wal-Mart stores. Perhaps a more competitive job market in major metropolitan areas works against Wal-Mart, because in the towns where Wal-Mart is the only game in town the level of service seems to be better.

Wal-Mart can attack bad press all they want, but providing a better shopping experience would certainly be a good place to start attacking the negative stereotypes.

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  1. Teresa February 1, 2004
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  3. Boyd February 2, 2004
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  5. Jackie April 21, 2004