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Selling Wal-Mart  

2007-04-03 17:22:49|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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SellingWal-Mart

Can the company co-opt liberals?

by Jeffrey Goldberg April 2, 2007

Wal-mart

On the second floor of Wal-Mart’s headquarters, inBentonville, Arkansas, is a windowless room called Action Alley. Inthe Wal-Mart idiom, the term “Action Alley” usually refers to themain aisle of the company’s two thousand Supercenters—the storesthat have upended the retail business by selling enormousquantities of groceries and imported goods at prices thatcompetitors find difficult or impossible to match. At the “homeoffice,” as Bentonville is known, Action Alley is the company’swar room, a communications center that was set up and is staffed byWashington-based operatives from Edelman, a public-relations firmthat advises companies on issues of “reputation management.”Wal-Mart corporate culture is parsimonious except in the matter ofexecutive compensation, but, according to a source, the company hasbeen paying Edelman roughly ten million dollars annually torenovate its reputation. </FONT></P>
<P></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>Twenty yearsago, Wal-Mart was widely viewed as a scrappy regional retailer, andits founder, Sam Walton, an Ozarks eccentric with a vision ofsuper-discounting, was praised for intuiting the needs of hiscustomers, and for maintaining high morale among his workers. WhenWalton retired, in 1988 (he died in 1992), the company had revenuesof sixteen billion dollars. Today, Wal-Mart is the second-largestcompany in the world in terms of revenue—only ExxonMobil isbigger. Its revenues last year came to more than three hundred andfifteen billion dollars, with profits of more than eleven billion,and it has developed a reputation as a worldwide colossus thatprovides poor pay and miserly benefits to its 1.8 millionemployees. The image of the company is not helped by theimmoderation of Sam Walton’s widow and children, who togethercontrol forty per cent of Wal-Mart’s outstanding shares, and whoare worth roughly eighty billion dollars; they are, by a strikingmargin, the richest family in America. (They are worth more thanWarren Buffett and Bill Gatescombined.)</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>Wal-Mart istraditionally a Republican-leaning company (during the past fifteenyears, more than seventy-five per cent of its political donationshave gone to Republicans) and has become a favorite target ofDemocratic politicians. Hillary Clinton, who once served onWal-Mart’s board, recently returned a five-thousand-dollardonation because of what a campaign spokeswoman said were “seriousdifferences with current company practices.” Barack Obama and JohnEdwards have joined union-led campaigns to denounce the company forits wage-and-benefit policies. Wal-Mart is notably unfriendly tounions; in 2000, when meat-cutters at a single Wal-Mart in Texasorganized into a collective-bargaining unit, Wal-Mart responded byshutting down its meat counters across Texas and in fiveneighboring states. It closed an entire store in Quebec, ratherthan see workers unionize. </FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>The company hasalso been criticized for driving American jobs overseas, bydemanding immense discounts from its suppliers. Senator ByronDorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who is one of Wal-Mart’s main foesin Congress, says that the company, by forcing its suppliers tomanufacture goods in China, shows that it “doesn’t stand forAmerican values.” Wal-Mart has been the subject of numerousunflattering documentaries and books. Even Ron Galloway, the makerof a recent pro-Wal-Mart documentary, “Why Wal-Mart Works and WhyThat Makes Some People Crazy,” has turned against the company.Galloway told me that he now considers Wal-Mart to be a“heartless” employer. “They just instituted a wage cap forlong-term employees—people making between thirteen and eighteendollars an hour. It’s a form of accelerated attrition. They can’texpect me to defend that,” Gallowaysaid.</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>Two unions—theService Employees International Union and the United Food andCommercial Workers—fund anti-Wal-Mart lobbying groups thatcatalogue what they see as the company’s diverse sins. Each monthseems to bring a new, self-inflicted embarrassment. Most recently,Wal-Mart announced that it had fired a technician from its ThreatResearch and Analysis division (which combats industrial espionage)for eavesdropping on telephone calls made by the<I>Times</I>’ Wal-Mart beat reporter, Michael Barbaro.Wal-Mart claims that the technician acted alone; the U.S. Attorneyin Arkansas is investigating. </FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>In 2005, Barbaroand another <I>Times </I>reporter, Steven Greenhouse,cited an internal memo written by the company’s chiefhuman-resources executive, M. Susan Chambers, in which shesuggested that the company could control personnel costs by nothiring unhealthy people. (To keep the sick and the lame off thepayroll, Chambers suggested that all jobs should include “somephysical activity; e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering.”) Inthe same memo, Chambers noted that forty-six per cent of thechildren of Wal-Mart’s million-plus American employees wereuninsured or on Medicaid. </FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>More recently,the company experienced a run of bad publicity when it announcednew scheduling policies for its store workers (known as“associates”). Under what critics call the “open availability”policy, workers must make themselves available for different shiftsfrom month to month or risk losing hours. Kathleen MacDonald, acosmetics-counter manager at a Wal-Mart in Aiken, South Carolina,explained to me, “It’s simple. They say you have to be there whenthe computer says the customers will be there. So if you have kidsat home you can’t show up, but then your hours are being cut.”</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>The company isfacing more consequential challenges over its treatment of women. Aclass-action lawsuit filed in San Francisco in 2001 by six femaleWal-Mart employees, alleging that the company has denied promotionsand equal pay to women, is proceeding steadily to trial; by someestimates, the suit could cost the company as much as five billiondollars. Wal-Mart has denied that it discriminates against women.Kathleen MacDonald joined the suit after she learned that a malecounterpart, who, like her, was stocking shelves, earned more thanshe did. When she raised the issue, she told me, “my immediatesupervisor said, ‘Well, God made Adam first, and Eve came fromhim.’ I was, like, what? That’s when I decided enough wasenough.”</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>Full-time hourlyworkers at Wal-Mart stores make an average of $10.51 an hour,according to the company. Wal-Mart’s most energetic adversary, agroup called Wake Up Wal-Mart, which is sponsored by the foodworkers’ union, notes that $10.51 may be the average full-timewage, but the company won’t disclose the average hourly wage ofpart-timers. “We think the true average is probably less than ninedollars,” Chris Kofinis, the Wake Up Wal-Mart spokesman, said.</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>The company hashad its bright moments, most notably in the immediate aftermath ofHurricane Katrina, when Wal-Mart mobilized its truck fleet todeliver goods to the storm zone. But that was a rare instance ofgood public relations. Owing in part to its status as a retailbehemoth, Wal-Mart has met with resistance in numerous communities(including New York City) when it has tried to open stores. And itsrecent business performance has been less than stellar; sales haveslowed, and the stock price is stagnant. Problems like these haveconcentrated the minds of Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s C.E.O., and histop executives. “We used to be the David and now we’re seen asthe Goliath,” John Fleming, the company’s chief merchandisingofficer, told me. </FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>The job of theEdelman people—there are about twenty, along with more than threedozen in-house public-relations specialists—is to help Wal-Martscrub its muddied image. Edelman specializes in helping industrieswith image problems; another important client is the AmericanPetroleum Institute, a Washington lobbying group that seeks toconvince Americans that oil companies care about the environmentand that their profits are reasonable. Edelman does its work bycultivating contacts among the country’s opinion élites, withwhom it emphasizes the good news and spins the bad; by such tacticsas establishing “Astroturf” groups, seemingly grass-rootsorganizations that are actually fronts for industry; and, as Ideduced from my own visit to Bentonville, by advising corporateexecutives on how to speak like risk-averse politicians.</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>It became clearto me in Bentonville that Wal-Mart’s senior executives had beentightly scripted. When I talked with John Menzer, a companyvice-chairman, a spokeswoman named Sarah Clark, my official escortthere, told me that the conversation would be limited to thecompany’s new Jobs and Opportunity Zones concept, which isdesigned to help smooth the arrival of new stores in urban areas.(A company source told me that the Zones idea was intended byEdelman as a public-relations maneuver to soften Wal-Mart’s imageamong minority communities; the entire budget for the program isfive hundred thousand dollars over two years.) Menzer, a slenderman with a thin smile, explained the company’s attraction tounderemployed inner-city residents, saying, “One of the biggestopportunities a person has at Wal-Mart is to be part of this growthcompany. There are always opportunities for promotion, learning,and education, and people know they can build a career here.”</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>When I askedabout the “open availability” policy, Clark interrupted, whileMenzer stared at me. “I can certainly take that one,” Clark said.“I’ll make a note of that. We’ll talk about that later. Wedon’t have ‘open availability.’ ” Menzer continued as if thequestion had not been asked. “Now we’re expanding outside ourfour walls to invest in the community, so let me add that in asanother step we’re taking,” he said. (Sometime later, Clarksuggested that I interview an employee about flexible scheduling,and she provided the name and number of one who would talk to me:Latoya Machato, a cashier at a Texas Supercenter. I called thestore and asked for Machato, but was told that “cashiers can’tcome to the phone during work.” I called later and was told thatMachato could speak to me on her break, but would not be allowed tocall long-distance from a company phone. I asked Clark if Machatocould talk to me after her shift, but Clark said that that would beimpossible, because the store would have to put her “on theclock,” and thus file the paperwork to get her paid an extrahour’s wage.)</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>The Edelman teamassigned to Wal-Mart, I learned, is divided into three groups:“promote,” “response,” and “pressure.” The Jobs andOpportunity Zones notion came from the promotions team. Theresponse-team members—veterans of political campaigns—aresupposed to quickly counter criticism in the press or on the Web.The pressure group works on opposition research, focussing on theunions and the press. </FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>There is greatmistrust of the press at Wal-Mart headquarters. The chiefspokeswoman for the company, a former A. T. & T. executivenamed Mona Williams, keeps on a shelf a framed cover of a 2003issue of <I>Business Week</I> featuring a story titled“Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?” The story asked tough questions aboutWal-Mart’s influence on the American economy. “I keep that thereto remind me never to trust reporters,” she said, without smiling.Sarah Clark was friendlier, but similarly suspicious. It was Clarkwho, without enthusiasm, brought me to Action Alley for a briefglimpse inside.</FONT></P>
<P><FONT face="Times New Roman" size=2>Before openingthe door, she instructed me not to write down anything I saw—thethird time that this particular directive had been issued. In someways, the home office is not unlike the headquarters of theNational Security Agency—both contain a large number of windowlessrooms and both are staffed by people who are preoccupied by themovement of strangers in their midst. The N.S.A.’s headquarters,though, seemed to me more aesthetically appealing; the Wal-Marthome office resembles a poorly funded elementary school. Wal-Martexecutives take pride in their ostentatiously shabby surroundings.“When I was working internationally, I got to be friends withHenry Kissinger, and so I invited Henry to have lunch with us,”Menzer told me. “We had lunch in the Quail Room, and it’s gotpictures of Sam Walton and all his bird hunting, and we handed outSubway sandwiches and said, ‘Well, you’re very special, so wethrew in a bag of chips,’ and I daresay I don’t know if he eversaw a Subway sandwich before, but he was actually so impressed thatwe live ourculture.”</FONT></P>

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