Love to hate Wal-Mart?

Sitting on the fence. Never really a good place to be, but sometimes you just get stuck there…

Here’s one of my ‘on the fence’ issues:

Being a business student that cares about the environment (hence the Corporate Environmental Management masters degree), it’s hard to completely dislike Wal-Mart.

On one side, their “best practices” have been shoved down my throat from every business class that I’ve ever taken; but on the other side, there’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to walk into that store.

 I get it; Sam Walton built a business model that works. As much as I cringe when I hear someone say they “bought it at Wal-Mart”, I understand the market forces that bring them there. It’s cheap. Their distribution practices are examples of perfection, their power of suppliers is matchless etc. So, although I complain, I’m sure that if I was to work in retail, I’d look to Wal-Mart for some best practices.  But I still hate it.

The strangest thing though, I love the Superstore (Loblaws) (the new Joe line is actually fantastic). Maybe it’s because it’s Canadian, but even though it’s pretty much based on the same model, I have no qualms about walking in there. So what does that mean? If it reached the success level of Wal-Mart, would I hate it too?  Which essentially means that I like Loblaws because it has failed to overtake the leader?  (And it won’t – serious issues there right now…)

So there I am, perched on my fence.

I really had to ponder on this. Why do I hate Wal-Mart so much?  Is it just a favourite past-time?  Do I like being a part of the club that loves to hate Wal-Mart?

I think the biggest reason why I stay away from that store is that I hate what it stands for: mass consumerism mixed with suburbia (at least that’s how I think of it). I absolutely hate big box neighbourhoods and to me, Wal-Mart is the epitome of the big box. I prefer local neighbourhoods and smaller shops (or nice Superstores in small neighbourhoods;). I’ve also had a personal experience with how poorly they treat their staff.  I was about to say that I don’t like the fact that they’ve driven prices down so low that their suppliers can’t do business, and that the prices just make us go ga-ga for more ‘stuff’ – but then again, I’m a bargain shopper everywhere else and I love getting something extremely cheap.

To make things more interesting, I just read an article in Canadian Technology and Business (insert to the Globe and Mail) and there was an article entitled: Wal-Mart Canada: Going Green.

Interesting points:

  • Canadian goals: 100% renewable energy, 0% global waste, and be a world leader in providing products that are good for the environment”…. Ummm seems like some pretty steep goals…
  • Changed shipping containers from cardboard to plastic containers – last 60+ trips  (hope that they can recycle them after)
  • All Canadian stores moving to LED outside and lower wattage bulbs inside
  • Moving into green products, forcing suppliers to think about their products’ impact
  • One environmental pilot store in US – mixing oil from frying chickens in the stores with used car oil from their auto centres to heat the buildings  

Ok, so as a soon to be Corporate Environmental Management student, why do I hate Wal-Mart again?

The company has an extreme amount of power in the retail industry and when they speak, their retailers listen. So right now, I can’t really complain. They’re pushing forward on green initiatives that really have some weight to make a change,

So will I shop at Wal-Mart? Occasionally perhaps, but essentially no.  There’s an answer straight from the gut from a girl that’s sitting on the fence.



7 thoughts on “Love to hate Wal-Mart?

  1. Jay Godse says:

    Ahhh Jane. Everybody loves to hate big box. The reason big box succeeds is because our urban architectures are driven by cheap oil. With cheap oil, middle class families often have 2+ vehicles, and can drive them all over the place. That is why we also have suburbs. The other factor driving our urban architectures is the fact that the creation of new value comes from concentrating capital and smart people in a few places (industrial and information revolutions).

    In light of these conditions, consumers will gravitate to solutions that give them the best deal, which, unfortunately for you, is what we have today.

    Mega companies like Walmart, Home Depot, Microsoft, Google, Sun, came into existence because they were breaking the monopoly and bad business practices of previous businesses, and provided many of the same goods & services of the incumbents for a half the price or less. One thing I have noticed is that small mom&pop shops that give bad service usually go out of business quickly these days instead of lasting for years & years like they used to. (Consistent bad service is a form of monopoly rent collection). That is the Wal-Mart effect. If Wal-Mart treats its folks badly, they’ll go work for Home Depot.

    One of the reasons you can sit on the fence about Wal-Mart is because you can afford to. If your lifestyle changes to the point where you need the economies of scale and pricing given by Wal-Mart and you are still sitting on the fence then I’ll be impressed.

    If you hate big box neighbourhoods you need to find a way to enable smart and prosperous people to plant roots in new “small-box” neighbourhoods where they can work and shop without having to travel and/or commute extensively. If this becomes a viable alternative, then the big-box model will be brought down a notch or 3. Unfortunately, the reality is that smart and prosperous people tend to move to areas where other smart and prosperous people live, and drive up property prices so that stores have to move out to the suburbs. (Hint…try to find a medical doctor under 30 in Northern Ontario. He is smart and potentially prosperous almost by definition. Also, few men/women smart enough to “bag” a doctor as a spouse in a southern Ontario med school would want to move north). These folks then work at places that are usually a lot bigger than can be supplied (with workers) by one “small-box” neighbourhood….creating the need for more suburbs.

    The only thing reversing this trend is the ability to set up global enterprises that are based on secure & cheap electronic communication, commerce, and personal authentication networks. When we get that right, I can move to Pakenham, Ontario with all of its simplicity and beauty, while still using my “brains” to run a prosperous business and doing most of my shopping and working locally. (Hint….Northern Ontario doctors using telemedicine to access professional expertise in Toronto).

    Until then, it’s big-box and ‘burbs. Sorry.

    P.S. As for the environmental stuff, nobody’s going to make a switch to CFC/LED lights or other stuff until there is a personal reward for their personal investment. For me there has been a reward for CFC/LED lights, composting, etc for a few years, so I am using them. For other stuff there is no personal reward, and therefore no personal investing.

  2. Great rant, Jane!
    I seem to recall that the Westboro big box Loblaws and the big box Mountain Equipment Coop all got frosty reactions when they were proposed. People complain of too many Starbucks invading Canada, yet they don’t mind an American Tim Hortons on every corner. As for your fence, Jane… where to get the wood? Home Depot or Rona? choices choices. There’s actually only one local place left to buy wood – Pilon in Hull.

    It’s not those boxes that bother me – it’s the diminishing variety. It’s all the same stuff. It seems that the only businesses that have a shot at success are unique restaurants (thankfully there’s not an Olive Garden on every corner in Canada at least) , and professional services (lawyers, accountants…)

    Soon the only variety left will be virtual – riding the long tail on the web.

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