It was probably inevitable that Wal-Mart would come to be viewed not just as an incredibly successful company but as a metaphor for everything that is right and wrong about American capitalism. No company had ever gotten so big so fast, had more customers or employed more people. Like Sears and Ford, AT&T and Microsoft, its innovation has not only revolutionized its industry, but also changed the way business is done in countless other industries.
Its impact has been so profound that economists can now quantify its effect on what things cost, what people make, what fringe benefits they get, and how fast jobs and wealth have been created. And that's true not just in the United States, but in countless countries around the world.
It's gotten to the point where Wal-Mart inspires local zoning ordinances and national boycotts, while almost single-handedly catalyzing public support for the union movement. It is now the subject of dueling movies, one by a critic determined to show how it disappoints even its most loyal employees, another by an admirer who marvels at its organizational prowess. And last week, it was the subject of a critical report by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Labor.
For all this public scrutiny, Wal-Mart is an intensely private company, with an insular culture, that is only just now learning to use tools long since taken for granted by other large businesses.
Management gurus from McKinsey & Co. have laid out a multi-year strategy that has already led the company to announce improved community outreach, more affordable health benefits and tougher environmental standards for suppliers and store formats. Chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. went so far as to call for an increase in the minimum wage.
To respond to all the criticism, Wal-Mart has engaged the public relations firm Edelman to help it set up a 24/7 "war room" where the New York Times last week found Reagan confidant Michael K. Deaver and Dukakis press secretary Leslie Dach huddling over strategy.
The company has even asked the consulting firm of Global Insight Inc. to commission academic studies of its economic impact, several of which were presented last week at an open forum in Washington. They showed that in areas where its stores are located, Wal-Mart has lowered wages, cut food costs and increased Medicaid spending but lowered spending on other kinds of public assistance.
No company enjoys this kind of scrutiny and attention. But with its same-store sales rising only 3 percent, its stock price languishing and even once-loyal customers beginning to turn away because of all the bad publicity, Wal-Mart probably has no choice but to deal with it.