The Bentonville shuffle 

WAL-MART: At home, in Bentonville.
  • WAL-MART: At home, in Bentonville.

While I’m not one of the rabid Wal-Mart haters — it’d be kind of hypocritical of me, given than I’m often spotted in one of their stores with my cart mounded over with goods, most still moist from the tears of sweat-shop laborers — I do tend to get a little suspicious when the largest corporation in the world sharpens a stick and invites its critics to give it a good, stiff poke in the eye.

I’m talking, of course, about the conference held Nov. 4 — sponsored by Wal-Mart, no less — called “Measuring Wal-Mart’s Impact on the Local Economy.”

Next month’s conference: “Ten Things I REALLY Screwed Up On,” with keynote speaker George W. Bush.

Papers for the conference, said an Aug. 29 press release by corporate analysis firm Global Insight, “should cover the overall economic impact of Wal-Mart or focus on specific areas, such as inflation, jobs and economic growth,” and would be selected “according to relevance [to] Wal-Mart’s global impact — both positive and negative — and academic rigor, methodology and overall quality of analysis.” What’s more, Wal-Mart went so far as to throw open the gate to the hordes, offering internal data on subjects like employee wages and store operations.

If I wasn’t so sure that there was some kind of diabolical genius behind this (there always seems to be when it comes to Wal-Mart) I would say that the Wally World exec who thought up the idea for the conference probably had been hit over the head with a rubber mallet, shuttled to Bentonville in a rolled up rug, then slow-boiled in oil ($5.49 a gallon at your friendly Wal-Mart store!) while naked men in Sam Walton masks danced around the pot.

The true test, however, is: Did the gamble pay off?

Friends, the payoff came before the eggheads had even started crunching numbers for their papers, with Joe Public thinking that Wal-Mart — legendarily clannish and closed off about its business practices — couldn’t have skeletons in its closet if it was willing to sponsor a skeleton CONFERENCE, for chris’sakes.

When the papers finally came in, it paid off a second time, when the results turned out to be not nearly the portrait of a community-and-wage killer the Wal-Mart haters like to paint. That doesn’t mean it was all rosy, however. While Wal-Mart trumpeted the positives uncovered in the papers presented at the conference — Wal-Mart Saves Families $2,329 Per Year! Net Positive Impact on Wages and Job Creation! — the actual results were mixed. Then again — and maybe this was Wal-Mart’s thinking all along — when you’re roundly thought of as the Devil, even mixed looks like Grade-A, seal of approval, No. 1.

Though researchers found that Wal-Mart had less of an impact on communities than once feared, none went so far as to say it was all fine-and-dandy when Big Smiley came to town. A paper by Michael Hicks from Marshall University, for instance, found that while the construction of a Wal-Mart increased local property tax assessments in the area, Medicaid expenditures also went up by $898 per worker. Another paper, from the Public Policy Institute of California, found that while the construction on a Wal-Mart store increased total employment by 2 percent in the immediate area, total payroll per person declined by 5 percent. Yet another paper by several California researchers, who studied the effect of the “Supercenter” on the San Francisco Bay area grocery market, found that in a 12-county area, the savings on groceries for shoppers after the construction of Wal-Mart stores would be between $382 million to $1.13 billion per year — while wages and benefits for workers in the grocery sector would fall by between $300 million and $576 million per year.

This is all the long way of saying: What looked like public relations suicide really worked in the long run for Wal-Mart. And you’ve got to give the corporation props for opening itself up to scrutiny. Then again, why do I get the sneaking suspicion Wal-Mart knew how it was going to turn out all along? Maybe it’s because you don’t get to be the richest corporation in America without shooting loaded dice.

Ummmm … Wal-Marty!


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