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Guaranteed Low Prices? Debating Walmart

Guaranteed Low Prices? Debating Walmart

John Donvan
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Finally, we're doing a brick-and-mortar business debate!

Yup, we're taking on the legacy and impact of America's largest company in terms of revenue, and its largest employer outside the federal government, Walmart, a company of clout and controversies. This will be the latest entry in our informal series of debates that ask whether certain big name companies are to be admired or admonished.

Thus far we have debated whether Google is sometimes evil (the "yes" side won that night), and whether Amazon is mostly good or mostly bad for readers (the audience vote swung, alas, for mostly bad). At some point, I'm hoping we add Uber to the list of companies whose performance/ethics/social impact we will test. Of course, the motion that night can only be "All Hail Uber!"

But first, it's Walmart, a company distinguished from those others by having been born long before the internet, and by the fact that it has such a real, visible, massive presence in the 3-D world, in the forms of its thousands and thousands of giant-sized Supercenters, Sam's Clubs and discount stores.

When you're that big, you're not just a store anymore. Walmart has literally changed the U.S. economy. Arguably, retail prices everywhere in the U.S. are lower because of Walmart. It did this through hard bargaining, sourcing its wares overseas, and through super innovation in how it handles inventory. What has worked for Walmart, competitors copied. The American shopper, it is argued, is much better off than ever before, thanks to Walmart.

But at what cost? Critics focus on how the Walmart effect has hurt workers, by keeping wages low and unions out. The business gets by, it is argued, by counting on U.S. government support programs (food stamps, for example) to make up for what its employees don't find in their own paychecks.

Nor can a player as big as Walmart stay above the political fray. While the man in the White House trumpets talks about taxing imports to put America First, Walmart has taken a most public stand in opposition to the idea (because, of course, taxes will drive up the price Walmart will have to pay for stuff it brings in from Mexico, China, etc).

So, there's a lot to argue about, when it comes to this particular brick-and-mortar biz, and especially at the particular moment we are in.

What do you think? Would you say, "Long Live Walmart" (which happens to be our motion), or are you likely to go the other way, and come up with a thumbs down?

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