washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

The Price of Low Prices

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page A29

I spent a morning this week walking up and down the aisles of a local Wal-Mart, and I have to confess that I never once glimpsed the face of pure evil.

The world's biggest retailer has been getting a ton of bad press recently, much of it taking Wal-Mart's essential wickedness as a given and seeking only to calibrate the depravity. Some of the whacks are richly deserved: When Wal-Mart decided last week to close a store in Quebec after its workers summoned the temerity to join a union, no amount of spinning could make it look like an act of good corporate citizenship. Wal-Mart is famously union-averse, and the Quebec store would have been the only one -- out of nearly 4,000 -- in the United States and Canada with an organized workforce.

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Wal-Mart hires its smock-clad "associates" at $7.50 to $9 an hour in an expensive metropolitan area such as Washington, less in smaller towns. It charges them so much for health insurance that only about half can afford it. If you're surviving on public benefits, getting hired at Wal-Mart doesn't automatically get you back on your feet.

Wal-Mart's suppliers paint themselves as mere vassals, forced to cut their prices (and profit margins) to the bone to keep doing business with the giant chain. Some, such as Procter & Gamble, have established satellite offices in Bentonville, Ark. -- Wal-Mart's remote headquarters town -- to better satisfy the behemoth's whims. The suppliers moan that they can't make their geegaws cheaply enough for Wal-Mart if they keep their factories in Kalamazoo or Kansas City, so they have to send the orders, and the jobs, to China. And now Wal-Mart has also become the nation's biggest seller of food, causing business writers to start researching their obituaries for the big U.S. grocery chains.

All of which suggests at least a touch of evil at work in Bentonville. It appears that the company recently stumbled across the concept of public relations, and CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. has met with editors and writers from a couple of newspapers, including The Post, to tell Wal-Mart's side of the story.

Scott is an effective emissary -- razor-sharp, candid, folksy, no visible horns. He did get a little scary when he said Wal-Mart opens a new store somewhere in the world every single day, on average, and summed up the company's expansion goal: "We would like to be everywhere we're not." Even scarier was when he noted in passing, "The flu season just hit. For the pharmacy group, this is their Christmas!"

Sound bites like that make Wal-Mart's brand of retailing seem ruthless, but guess what: Ruth doesn't live here anymore, and it's you and me, not Lee Scott, who sent her away.

Liberals like me are perpetually queasy about globalization and what the ability to make T-shirts or television sets in Costa Rica or China for a fraction of what it costs to make them here is doing to American jobs, the U.S. labor movement, the balance of trade -- pick your worry. Yet we don't shun the low prices globalization offers us any more than conservatives do.

I don't shop at Wal-Mart, and neither, I suspect, does most of the rest of the Washington-based commentariat. The reason is lack of convenience -- there isn't yet a Wal-Mart inside the Beltway. But I do shop at less distant big-box stores, including Costco, and almost every time I do, I run into a friend or acquaintance whom I know to be a highly compensated professional of the liberal persuasion. We're there, standing in line with Ethiopian cab drivers and Honduran construction workers and Korean grocers so we can buy two pounds of coffee for what 12 ounces would cost at the neighborhood store.

If we want to, we can shop where the people selling us our coffee beans have union contracts and better benefits. Wal-Mart is just smarter and more zealous, almost to the point of evangelism, in cutting prices than most of its competitors. Where the company is forced by law to accept unions, as in Germany, it accepts unions. We can lobby to change the labor laws here. We have options.

Many others don't. The people who tend the yards of the commentariat and serve canapes at our parties, who drive us around in their taxicabs and clean our offices at night, don't have the option of paying more and have no forum to bemoan the state of the political economy. Those are the people I saw in Wal-Mart that morning, buying work pants for $16.64, tank tops for $4.46 and shoes for just under $25. Where else are they going to outfit their children for kindergarten? Baby Gap? Are they supposed to furnish their apartments at Crate and Barrel?

I'm not holding Wal-Mart up as a paragon by any means, but neither can I trace the root of all evil to Bentonville, Ark. It's us. We're just getting what we pay for.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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