THAT PERKY SMILEY FACE … WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE THAT LOW PRICES ARE SOMEHOW ATTAINED BY A JAUNTY, MAGICAL PROCESS, BUT WHEN WAL-MART MARKS A PRODUCT DOWN, THERE ARE REPERCUSSIONS THAT MANY CONSUMERS SEEM ONLY DIMLY AWARE OF, LIKE CHILD LABOR. become. \(In short, the eager student of Wal-Mart can read Bianco for insight into the company’s culture and its transgressions and Fishman for an understanding of how Wal-Mart is changing the nature of business and our cultrademarked the phrase “the Wal-Mart effect”he acknowledges that it already has traction in the culturebut he does examine it more fully than any other nonacademic book yet published on the subject \(Nelson Lichtenstein’s WalMart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism is an insightful collection of essays from a 2004 academic conferFishman stipulates, is neither positive or negative. “It takes its coloration from its context;’ he writes, but it means the following things: Wal-Mart’s competitors have to lower prices once Wal-Mart enters a particular market; Wal-Mart “drains the viability of traditional local shopping areas”; Wal-Mart has ushered in the “relentless scrutiny of unnecessary costs” in manufacturing a product; and Wal-Mart has lowered wages at stores that try to compete with it. Chief among those effects are the low prices Wal-Mart heralds in its adsa good thing for the consumer, but not so good for companies trying to get WalMart to stock their wares. Most relation ships between retailers and manufacturers are lubricated by rounds of golf or liquor. Not so at Wal-Mart, whose buyers meet their vendors in nondescript cubicles at company headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, where one of Wal-Mart’s buyers met with Vlasic, the pickle company, in the late ’90s. There’s a good reason Fishman titles a chapter on Wal-Mart’s relationship with Vlasic “The Squeeze.” Vlasic’s bulging gallon jar of pickles intrigued Wal-Mart’s buyer; Vlasic, which created the product for small businesses, wanted to sell it for over $3. But then Wal-Mart’s pickle buyer had a brainstorm, Fishman writes. How about selling the gallon jar of pickles nationwide for less than $3, $2.97 to be exact? The gallons of pickles sold extremely well, 80 jars a week in every store, but because Wal-Mart had imposed such a low profit margin on the product, Vlasic was undergoing what Fishman refers to as a “devastating success”: People were buying their pickles, but Vlasic wasn’t making nearly enough money. “The price was a fiction imposed on the pickle market in Bentonville,” Fishman writes. “Consumers saw a bargain; Vlasic saw no way out. Both were responding not to real market forces, but to a pickle price gimmick imposed by Wal-Mart as a way of making a statement.” That perky smiley face that bops around in Wal-Mart commercials dropping the prices of familiar products would have us believe that low prices are somehow attained by a jaunty, magical process, but when Wal-Mart marks a product down, there are repercussions that many consumers seem only dimly aware of, like child labor. By the time that the unforgettable Kathie Lee Gifford child-labor scandal erupted in 1996, Wal-Mart had already stopped using the factory where Gifford’s clothing line for the retailer was manufactured, but the damage had been done. Multinational corporations like Wal-Mart “don’t want to have to explain dramatic, unsettling revelations about how the familiar products they sell manage to have such low prices;’ Fishman writes. About halfway through Max Barry’s ingenious comedy Company, a hardened, takeno-prisoners executive lect ures her young, idealistic protege about the harsh friction between profit and ethics that are central to Fishman and Bianco’s investigations of Wal-Mart. “[Y]ou’re in the real world now, and soon enough you’ll realize that sometimes you have to choose between morals and results,” she intones. ” [C] ompanies do it every day, even the APRIL 21, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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