The Public Square

Chris Pawlicki of Champaign asks, Why Not Walmart?


Hi, My name is Chris Pawlicki . I am a 42 year old father of two currently working at the University of Illinois Music Library.

Why not Wal-Mart ?

For the consumers in the U.S. who enjoy a bargain, and I include myself in this category, it is perhaps hard to understand why any group of individuals would protest the building of a Wal-Mart in their community. Who doesn't want Low Prices?

Well, for starters, Japan.

In a recent op-ed piece on NPR, Ev Ehrlich, former Under Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration, bemoaned the backwards state of Japanese retailing that "is dominated by thousands of mom and pop stores." These stores, it seems, are protected in Japan by a large store law, that doesn't allow a large retailer to set up shop "next door" to a small business.

To Ehrlich, this is economic madness. Despite the "beautifully wrapped individual pieces of fruit" that these stores sell, Ehrlich sees these mom and pop stores as inefficient relics that "sit on small ,yet incredibily valuable, parcels of urban land."

The answer to this inefficiency? Wal-Mart! According to Ehrlich, a large retailer, like Wal-Mart, would force producers to increase productivity. This, in time, would "drive smaller retailers out of business" and "free up land for better uses."

America made this choice years ago and, now, Ehrlich believes the U.S. government should "assist" Japan in making their decision, using the clout of U.S. trade negotiators to "put all their political and diplomatic support behind a company that can" crack the Japanese market.

Quite aside from the cultural arrogance implicit in Ehrlich's piece (We, obviously, know what's best for the Japanese economy), it seems like a good time to re-think the cost involved in Low Prices.

Having given up our own mom and pop stores for blocks and blocks of megastores and concrete, is there, perhaps, a voice inside that questions that cost of Low Prices? Locally owned and operated. Craftsmanship. Beautifully wrapped.

And, can we hear Mr. Ehrlich's talk of producers being "forced to operate efficiently" and not smile at the sanguine economic euphemism for sweat shop labor? Yes, we get inexpensive clothes at Wal-Mart, but at what cost? Efficient 12-15 hour shifts. Efficient pay scales that keep workers in poverty. Efficient anti-union business practices. Would Wal-Mart be able to maintain their competitive advantage over the mom and pop stores, in fact, if Mr. Ehrlich was forced to substitute "humanely" for "efficiently?"

There's no need to look abroad to experience Wal-Mart's "efficiency." Ask Safeway about the effects of Wal-Mart's efficient non-union labor on their ability to provide a living wage to their employees or ask a Wal-Mart employee about the company's efficient rationing of health care. In the race to the bottom, Wal-Mart is efficiently leading the way.

Personally, I think these costs are too high to support Wal-Mart and I hope Japan does not bow to U.S. pressure to accept the very high costs of Low Prices.