Walmart: America's favorite scapegoat

Walmart (WMT) prides itself on its low prices, but it tends to make the news for more controversial topics. For critics, its business practices symbolize all that is wrong with American industry; on the flip side, many consumers view it as a key to their financial survival. As such, the battles between liberals and conservatives, the middle class and the wealthy, the cities and the suburbs often play out in arguments over the massive retailer.

The latest controversy erupted over a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll which asked which of five companies best symbolized America today. Forty-eight percent of respondents determined that Walmart was the winner. The runner up, Google, received only 15 percent of the votes.
Predictably, the finding raised hackles among America's cultural elites. Vanity Fair led the way with its own analysis of the poll responses, stating that respondents who claimed that Walmart represented America "might have meant that cynically. (But only a cynic would really think that.)" In other words, according to the magazine's writers, a pro-Walmart vote could be a mark of hip detachment, hopeless cynicism, or stupidity. What it could not be is the vote of an intelligent respondent who sincerely positions the retailer as a positive representation of America.

In this analysis, Vanity Fair said a great deal about its cultural prejudices, indicating an almost reactionary hatred of Walmart. On some level, this is understandable: over the past few years, the big box retailer has become a stand-in for all that is wrong with American commerce. In the minds of its critics, the company is a brutal, exploitative, low-class behemoth that squeezes out independent retailers, kills American industry, and exploits American workers. In short, Walmart is today's ultimate capitalist caricature, the contemporary equivalent of the raping factory owner, the top-hatted aristocrat, or the brutalizing slave-driver.

In truth, Walmart illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, and its business practices are consistently driven by the bottom line. Flexible and ever-changing, the store works hard to accommodate the needs of a shifting customer base whose ideals don't always match their paychecks. The reason Walmart does so well is the very reason that Vanity Fair was seemingly unable to comprehend a sincere appreciation of its model: the retailer focuses its efforts on customers who are living from paycheck to paycheck. This is not Vanity Fair's target demographic, to put it mildly.

The poll also reveals a basic disconnect between what Walmart symbolizes and what it actually is. Over the past few years, the store has adopted policies that might seem very comforting to Vanity Fair's readers and writers. For example, in an attempt to draw in customers, Walmart has developed relationships to sell healthier, organic food options, couture clothing, and aspirational brands. Similarly, as customers have become more concerned about the plight of Walmart employees and the environment, the company has offered more of its workers health care and begun a massive eco-labeling effort.

Currently, the most popular critique of the Walmart is probably its tendency to buy products manufactured overseas. However, as its environmental and employee benefit efforts indicate, the company usually bases its decisions on the desires of its customers. For the time being, it would appear that Walmart's patrons are less concerned about the plight of American labor than they are about making ends meet. If and when that situation changes, Walmart will undoubtedly alter its policies.

The irony is that, even as Vanity Fair has used its first poll as an opportunity to attack Walmart, it has demonstrated that it is more than willing to adopt the company's customer-focused techniques. On its website, the magazine claims to be a leader in American culture: "From world affairs to entertainment, business to fashion, crime to society, Vanity Fair is a cultural catalyst that drives the popular dialogue globally." With that in mind, the company's decision to conduct polls of the American public suggests a move toward populism that seems an uncomfortable fit with its elitist stance. Ultimately, as the magazine's polling initiative demonstrates, we are all living in a Walmart world, and companies that ignore the consumer do so at their peril.
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