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February 25, 2005

Why People Like Wal-Mart

Kevin Drum and Max Sawicky got into a small debate on whether Wal-Mart's homogenization of products in favor of cheaper prices is worth the tradeoff. Brad Plumer thinks that Wal-Mart might not be so pernicious in that effect, since it might encourage other stores to INCREASE their variety of products in order to compete against Wal-Mart. Brad hastens to add that this issue isn't as important as whether Wal-Mart is violating labor rights, but I think it is a critical issue.

One reason I support a strong regulatory approach to raise wages and promote unionization at Wal-Mart, rather that just trying to keep them out, is that I think many people do find what Wal-Mart offers attractive-- and would find it attractive even if prices went up marginally to support decent wages.

For busy moms (and dads hopefully), the attraction of being able to visit one store, load up the cart quickly, and have all your week's shopping done is obvious. For many folks who can't afford to shop at all the chi-chi specialty stores, all the products available at Wal-Mart is not a narrowing of choices but a great expansion of variety. When people condemn Barnes & Noble for eliminating the local independent bookstore, my only reaction is to think how happy I would have been to have a B&N in my suburban town, rather than the crappy local independent store we had where I grew up.

We aren't going to convince people to improve Wal-Mart's working conditions by telling them they really don't want what Wal-Mart's selling, since they obviously do. What we can do is point out that many of the things they like about Wal-Mart -- especially the convenience and decent prices -- are compatible with the workers being treated with respect and dignity. The prices might go up a little bit, but most folks will treat that as a reasonable tradeoff. But if you tell them it's a choice between decent wages and having Wal-Mart altogether, I'm afraid we're fighting a losing battle.

Maybe it's because at heart I'm a Wal-Mart shopper and only avoid the place on principle that I have strong sympathy for those who support bringing them into towns across the country. I testified in Chicago in support of our bill to require living wages at large retail stores, and the aldermen from the poor parts of Chicago where Wal-Mart wanted to put their stores were rapturous at the prospect of bringing a few more shopping choices to areas ignored by most retail outfits. They were quite willing to regulate Wal-Mart but they were somewhat angry at the activists who wanted to block it from coming altogether. I'd rather choose a strategy -- fight to regulate and raise standards at Wal-Mart -- that accomodates both the desires by shoppers for what Wal-Mart sells and the desires by those same people as citizens that the workers at Wal-Mart get paid a decent wage.

Posted by Nathan at February 25, 2005 04:19 PM