Wal-Mart -- or is it Walmart? -- tries to shed its hyphen

At the end of its second-quarter earnings release, Wal-Mart dropped a bomb on the business community. Henceforth, the big-box behemoth would no longer be called "Wal-Mart," but rather "Walmart" -- or, as they've put it on their signs -- "Walmart*." Although the star is optional, the hyphen, or lack thereof, is not: Wal-Mart is no more.

Actually, they made the change a year ago and, as a commenter on a recent story pointed out, I am guilty of missing the boat on this one. For years, I relied on Wal-Mart for groceries and batteries, spackle and tires. Old habits die hard, and I was slow to adopt the new name.
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Part of the problem is that the company hasn't reincorporated; it is still legally named "Wal-Mart Stores Inc." However, in common usage, it has made it clear that, henceforth, it shall be known as "Walmart."

In LA Story, one of the great underappreciated films of the twentieth century, Steve Martin's character, Harris Telemacher, tells his latest crush how happy he is that she has a "normal" name. She, in turn, replies that she spells "Sandy" with a "Big S, small a, small n, big D, small e, big E...and I like to end it with a little star." It's as if the character felt that, by making her name exotic, she could somehow change her essential character.

Of course, Walmart (see, I spelled it right!) has the exact opposite problem. Presumably, the hyphen can be somewhat alienating to customers who have issues with punctuation. Alternately, the company might feel that the dash brings to mind the minus sign, perhaps indicating that Wal-mart is, in fact an equation. Of course, this could always make for a great marketing campaign: "(Wal) - (Mart) = (Low) x (Prices) x (Always)!" Ah, missed opportunity...

In the end, it's easy to make fun of people and organizations that obsess over the spelling of their names, particularly when the company in question is most famous for its inexpensive merchandise. Still, when all is said and done, is Walmart really all that much different from the kid in third grade who decides to change his name? For all his classmates, it is an almost existential crisis: one day, you're sitting next to "Herbie," a completely known quantity; the next, you have to come to terms with "Scooter," a total stranger.

As Shakespeare might have written, "That which we call a Wal-Mart / By any other name would still offer low, low prices." Following nine consecutive quarters of inventory improvement, the company seems to be emerging as one of the few recessionary success stories; feeling the thrill of its great success, maybe it's only logical that Walmart would want to make a stand. What's more, with expanded high-end products and a shifting look, it may be going through a sort of brand adolescence, in which it is demanding the right to determine its own name and image.

I, for one, intend to give Walmart its due. Be it "Wally World" or "Squalor Mart," "Wal-Mart" or "The Wall," as long as it continues to hire employees, sell bargain-priced items, and watch its bottom line, I'll call it anything it wants.

Except "Scooter."
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