Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grinding It Out

While I was waiting in the Wal-mart parking lot for my wife,who works there part-time, I watched the other employees who left at that same time (10 PM). There were senior citizens and people with physical problems both small and large, such as the woman in the wheelchair checking receipts. I wondered what these people would be doing if they couldn't work there. I don't know about other Wal-marts, but this one seems to give just about everyone a chance to show they can hold down a job there, and that's nice to see.

Watching them and the customers going in and coming out also reminded me that Wal-mart is in the hardscrabble sector of retailing, which is itself a tough business. It doesn't deal with those seeking couture and gourmet; it caters to people trying to put food on the table and clothes on the kids and maybe something fun if they can afford it. It's main business is needs, not desires. There aren't many revolutionary products or high-margin cash cows. Wal-mart makes it's money the way Andrew Carnegie made his over a century ago; by keeping costs as low as possible, and passing at least some of it on to customers, who are often the type who need any savings they can get (although not exclusively, of course; the Governor shops there). I read that economists anticipate Wal-mart holding up well during the current slump, because it deals in necessities at low prices. It's where people who can no longer afford to shop elsewhere will go.

It can be ruthless and stupid and generally show the usual symptoms of corporate giantism, but it is worth remembering that it didn't get where it is by riding a fad or incredible good luck. It clawed it's way up by giving people what they wanted (and sometimes needed) while being spit on most of the way. I know there are people who say they will never shop there for a variety of frequently legitimate reasons, and that's fine; it's what makes the economy work. We have other grocery stores here for those people. But the fact is that those other retailers would like to be in Wal-mart's position.

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