The Wal-Mart Effect: The Afterword

When Charles Fishman was trying to write the Wal-Mart Effect he go no help from his subject. They would not let him into Bentonville; to get an idea of how big head office was he rented a plane to fly over it. The book was put to bed just about when President Lee Scott launched his October Surprise: the speech that changed everything, where Wal-Mart was going and how it was going to change the world, if not just become the biggest single subject of TreeHugger posts. After that, everything changed; suddenly Wal-Mart PR people were calling and offering tours, to open the terrycloth robe, so to speak. (they don't have kimonos in Bentonville). He has followed the changes, wrote about the CFC campaign in Fast Company, and took advantage of the paperback release of his book to add an afterword chapter discussing them. Through no fault of the author, it suffers from the same problem as the original book, in that the subject is going through rapid change and extraordinary convulsions (like the firing of the new marketing VP) that only a blog could keep up with. Nonetheless it is a valuable addition.Fishman notes that the new changed relationship has "a touch of unreality; Mona Williams [VP of Flackdom] acknowledged as much in the closing sentence of her email to me:" Think of what a great anecdote this will make for your future talk-show appearances- shunned one year and courted the next" He continues with "Wal-mart is worried. The worry has been motivating." and then lists the initiatives familiar to Treehugger readers: CFCs, fuel saving trucks, organics, fish, solar panels and green roofs; we don't have time to find all the links.

He then points out the "Made in the USA" campaign of the 80's, and the new eco-stores that were built a decade ago- that there is a certain cynicism that comes from hearing about these campaigns in the past and seeing them disappear. He also reminds us that "low prices looked great for years, until we got a peak at their hidden, and sometimes unintended, costs. It is possible that the long-term consequences of muscling suppliers into sustainability will actually be unsustainable."

Up here in Canada, Wal-Mart is importing its superstore food concept. While driving along the new fancy toll highway 407 my daughter looked at the glitzy new office building to the left and asked "what's that?" I had just finished reading The Wal-Mart Effect and responded "it is the new headquarters for Loblaws, Canada's biggest grocery company. They are regrouping and adapting to meet the threat of Wal-Mart selling groceries in Canada." We shop a lot at Loblaws and my daughter knows it well and she asked "will they win?" I said that I learned from the book that when you go to Wal-Mart's offices you sit on lawn chairs and old discarded furniture in windowless cells, that their focus was on buying and selling at the lowest possible price and they did not spend money on superfluous things like furniture and offices. If Loblaws thinks that building a fancy new headquarters is the way to fight Wal-Mart then they did not have a hope in hell.

Ultimately Wal-Mart's success is based on Always Low Prices, Always. I wish them all the success in the world in their current campaign, but the disconnect between what we learned in the book and what is happening now is too great. If somebody was to start a pool on how long Lee Scott and this campaign will last, I would go very short.

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