The main factor being cited by many analysts is the cultural philosophy. Walmart tried to relocate the American model: service with a smile from the bag-packer at the end of the band, employees chanting W-A-L-M-A-R-T to raise morale and an ethics code which included banning sexual relations between employees. The latter was overturned about a year ago by the German courts, which supported the German custom by which man and wife can often be found across the hall from each other in the same firm after romance blossomed in the workplace. And clerks ordered by supervisors to smile at customers are reported to have discovered their smiles often interpreted as invitations to unwanted social interaction in a country where smiles are exchanged between friends, but not between strangers. And raising morale? Well, in Germany that is the job of the works' council, a group of employees quite akin to a union, which ensures employee concerns are represented during management meetings on the one hand, and organizes employee activities such as the company soccer competition or discounted access to mind and body classes.
Where does this leave practical TreeHuggers looking for lessons in environmental sustainability which Walmart might take away from this experience? First, Germans do tend to shop frequently and locally. Although more and more often, local might mean the discount market chain rather than the friendly neighborhood grocer, the fact remains that Germans did not drive the extra miles to save a few euro cents. Second, Germans prefer to bag groceries themselves into reusable carriers, or at least to pay a small fee for the avoidable sin of needing a plastic bag. These are cultural misunderstandings as well, but one could say the cultural philosophy of Walmart could not survive in the context of a German culture with a Happy Planet Index significantly higher than America's.
But that is the "public interest" story. It remains a cold hard fact of the discount retailing world that critical mass was never reached. Blame the German building code, as some analyst do, which significantly reduces Walmart's ability to expand quickly. Blame the takeover of existing stores which were scattered and not particularly well located, in contrast with competition which has sprung up on every corner (Aldi has 550 retail locations competing with Walmart's stores). In the face of the analysis that will surely issue from the respected business commentors, it will be hard to draw conclusions that Walmart's exit from Germany is due to rejection of globalization, unsustainable business culture, or even disinclination towards buying American goods. Okay. But we hope that if Walmart regroups to return to the German market, they will do it with a message of sustainability leadership that German TreeHuggers will be happy to hear.