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Tom Finneran: Why Walmart?

Friday, February 21, 2014
Tom Finneran, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTERâ„¢

Of the many things that make up the wonders of our world, the emotions kicked up by Walmart remain a mystery to me.

Yes, I realize that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer. And yes, I realize that in some things size matters. But the visceral hostility triggered by the mere mention of Walmart is a real puzzle to me. Why the hatred? Why the vituperative political whipping?

Some observations might be in order:

1) American shoppers are free to patronize whomever they choose;

2) American shoppers like choice and value;

3) At least in theory and rhetoric, Americans like competition;

4) In further theory and rhetoric, Americans dislike political and governmental bullying;

5) American families like job opportunities at all levels of skill and experience.

So why is it that Walmart is seen as the Darth Vader of American commerce and communities whenever they propose the location of a store? I’m not a Walmart shopper. I’ve been in a Walmart store two, maybe three times in my entire life. I saw lots of selection and good prices. And I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Walmart is on the “right” side of my above observations, providing consumer choice, value, competition, and opportunity……..all while getting kicked in the teeth for being too good at their concept.

A tale from out West, Wyoming specifically, where a rancher I know describes the 2 to 4 hour drives to the local grocery store whose choices were always limited, lousy, and expensive. A Walmart store opened up, creating job opportunities and bringing an incredible selection of products. My rancher friend is Yale-educated. He’s savvy and he is practical. Up until Walmart opened up out there, he could never get fresh oranges or tangerines. NEVER. Now he gets them every week at a great price. Why isn’t this celebrated? There’s no rip-off here. This is classic free-enterprise capitalism. In fact, everyone’s quality of life has been improved.

We’re told that the Home Depots, the Lowe’s, and the Walmarts of the world simply squeeze the life out of their small neighborhood competitors, killing long-standing community businesses. Here too I beg to differ.

Within four miles of my house there are 2 Home Depots and a Lowe’s. There are also two vintage old-school traditional hardware stores within the same locus. Neither of the two hardware stores have lost a step. In fact, they’ve improved their service and their business, not by weeping and whining, but by paying attention to every customer. No patron gets lost in their aisles. Every patron is approached and asked about their needs. Knowledgeable helpful salespeople make the customer king and the business prospers. Tell me again why Walmart is evil. Tell me again why competition is bad. Tell me a fairy tale.

Walmart makes a huge push to hire returning veterans. That seems pretty sweet to me, given all the challenges facing American military families. The company is funding a multi-billion dollar multi-year investment in American-based manufacturing. Bravo there too. The Children’s Hospitals’ Miracle Networks (of Mass. and Rhode Island) are big beneficiaries of Walmart’s philanthropic efforts. So too Youth Build. So too Straight Ahead Ministries serving Worcester and other urban youth.

How about those senior citizen neighbors who live on limited incomes and who rely on multiple medications for their health………….for them the four dollar generic drug pricing that Walmart offers is the difference between a diminishing and degraded quality of life and a life of self-respect. Is there anyone else in America offering that dignity and self-respect to fellow American citizens? Or how about those families with young growing children where Mom and Dad might bring in a very modest annual income? Not everyone makes $100,000 a year and shops on Boston’s dandy Newbury Street you know. Check out the price of sneakers and jeans for a family with a few kids, all of them outgrowing their clothes once or twice a year. I suspect that those families appreciate Walmart more than anyone else.

All of which raises questions about Walmart’s army of critics. Who are they? What are their motives? Their goals? Do they actually think that Walmart employees and Walmart shoppers are too dumb to handle their own affairs? Do they think that the four-dollar generic medication is some form of exploitation of easily-bewildered simple folk? Or that the young mother and father struggling to make ends meet are really simpletons who need the guidance of “activist experts”?

There is a dangerous conceit here, a condescending arrogance that is hard to fathom. Might we show some faith in the ordinary American. He or she can figure out what’s best for them without bullies and bureaucrats erecting gauntlets against choice. Walmart is not evil. Walmart is just a choice. And for many Americans it’s nice to have that choice around…...........may they go forth and multiply.

  • 10. RJ Reynolds

    The Smokeless Cigarette

    LOSE

    In 1988, long after the American public wised up to the dangers of cigarettes, RJ Reynolds launched the Premier cigarette. They called it a “smokeless nicotine delivery mechanism that looks and feels like a premium cigarette.” It didn't. Smokers said it tasted like charcoal, and drug users quickly figured out how to use it to smoke crack. It has been reported that RJ Reynolds lost $1 billion on the product.

     
  • 9. McDonald's

    The McLobster

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    The alleged lobster roll – no one's sure there was ever any real lobster in there – from McDonald's was about as successful in New England as their McCrabcake was in Maryland. It looked bad, tasted worse, and was shunned by even the most die hard Golden Arches fans. (Unlike the McRib, which continues to have a bewildering trance on McDonald's fans.) The sandwich is still available in some Canadian franchises and occasionally in Maine.

     
  • 8. Yahoo

    Bans Employees From Working at Home

    WIN

    When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer became the company’s chief executive, she instated Google-like food options, offered new benefits, and insisted full-time employees work in the office. The tech world was shocked, and Mayer admitted the mandate could diminish productivity. However, she saw an up side.

     
    "People are more productive when they’re alone,” she said at the time. “But they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”
     
    Now that Yahoo's future looks far brighter than when Mayer started, it seems she was onto something all along.
     
  • 7. Sony

    Backs Betamax

    LOSE

    Sony was right to support Blu-ray over the failed HD DVD, probably because they learned their lesson with the Betamax experience in 1975. That's the year the Betamax video recorder hit stores shelves. A year later, the VHS format hit the market. Sony never licensed its Betamax technology, and the two formats were not compatible. Consumers had to choose between the two. You know how that story ended.

     
  • 6. Tesla

    Enters the Auto Market with High End Electric

    WIN

    Whoever killed the electric car must not have been looking when the first Tesla Model S cars were sold at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. The Silicon Valley electric carmaker took the idea of eco-friendly vehicles and turned it into a blueprint for lead-footed success. Tesla's first made-from-scratch car, the electric Model S sedan, received a rare near-perfect score from Consumer Reports. At the time, Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., said "My hat's off to them." Tesla has since transformed America's image of electric cars. 
     
  • 5. Apple

    Fires Steve Jobs

    LOSE

    One of the world's most famous college drop outs, Steve Jobs founded Apple, helped it grow into a billion-plus public company, and launched the Macintosh. He was also ousted by Apple's Board of Directors in 1985. The popular take is that the board was stupid to fire Jobs as the leader of the Mac division, because Apple would have more quickly become the company it is today. A new take on the decision posits that the then-30-year old  Jobs was disruptive and incompetent in that role. After 12 years away from the company he founded, he learned the skills and discipline required for Apple's rebirth.

     
  • 4. Microsoft

    Takes on Sony + Nintendo in the Console Gaming Market

    WIN

    Microsoft has one person to thank for its console gaming success, and that person isn't even real. Master Chief is the hero of the insanely popular "Halo" franchise, which was first released was a launch title with the original Xbox. The game revolutionized First Person Shooters on consoles, and sold millions of consoles along the way. At the time, Microsoft was known as primarily a software company. They may have took a bath on those early consoles, but they now join Sony as one of the two major console makers left standing. (Sorry, Nintendo. The Wii U is going to sink you.)  

     
  • 3. Netflix

    Changes Pricing Plan

    LOSE

    Netflix is back on top now, but it almost went under in 2011 when it mishandled its pricing changes and attempted to slice off it DVD business under the name Qwikster. As they did with the New Coke launch, customers responded with immediate anger, leading Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to apologize. The company reverted to its $7.99 streaming plan and has never looked back.

     
  • 2. Ford

    Opts out of Government Loans

    WIN

    After Detroit’s automakers went to Washington in 2008 asking for emergency loans to keep their enterprises afloat, the big bus oval was the only one to opt out of the bailout. Ford decided to mortgage all of its assets to raise operating funds instead. Taxpayers eventually spent $80 billion to rescue General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. Ford focused on efficiency and increasing sales without using government bailout  money - thus avoiding the federal tinkering that Chrysler and GM  had to accept as a part of their deals. The company has since kept pace with GM, the country's largest automaker.