Has Wal-Mart Peaked?

The big box global takeover is falling short.


"Think Wal-Marts are everywhere you turn today?" cautions a call-to-arms from anti-corporate group Wal-Mart Watch, "Just wait five years." Americans may indeed have a whole lot of Wal-Mart coming their way, but Germans have been spared the deluge: The company announced its exit from the country on Friday, just months after it sold off its 16 stores in South Korea. Whatever it is that propels Americans, inexorably, towards smiley faces and cheap Chinese crap, at least some of the world doesn't share it.

The world's biggest corporation is an obvious target for anti-globalization activists, for whom Wal-Mart is a thriving colonizer, welcomed by clueless bargain-seekers even as it warps local communities into macrocosms of itself: homogenized, faceless, materialistic. It's an attitude that assumes deep fragility within communities and an odd sameness to consumer preferences across the globe. And it's a perception that has little to say about Wal-Mart's recent failures.

Wal-Mart's mistakes were many, and, according to analysts, partially cultural. Germans reportedly did not appreciate the aggressively effusive nature of the help—a regional American affect jarring to even Northeasterners stateside. Nor did Germans want to travel outside urban areas, where Wal-Mart plopped its behemoth stores. A policy against dating between employees was seen as profoundly invasive and later struck down by a judge. In South Korea, Wal-Marts simply failed to shift from Western marketing strategies or tailor their inventories to consumer demand; according to the New York Times, the company "sold products by the box, while [local retailers] E-Mart and Lotte built eye-catching displays and hired clerks who hawked their goods with megaphones and hand-clapping."

More important, perhaps, than Wal-Mart's failure to clap hard enough was its inability to go cheap enough: Discount retailing was already entrenched in both countries. There is nothing particularly American about leveraging economies of scale in 2006. In a regulatory environment better navigated by local retailers, who already understand the nuances of their customers' cultural preferences, Wal-Mart's failure was always the better bet.

The fear Wal-Mart inspires is nicely encapsulated in the title of Tom Slee's recent book No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart: The Deception of Personal Choice. Slee argues that Wal-Mart is a scourge we bring upon ourselves by forsaking the good of the community for the false idol of individual choice. But it was the individual choices of individual consumers in Germany and South Korea that sent Wal-Mart packing.

How successful has Wal-Mart been on a global scale? The corporation now operates in 12 countries outside the U.S., and they include nations far-off from Bentonville, Ark., including China and Japan. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that, for now at least, Wal-Mart is a regional retailer. The vast majority of its operations are in the U.S.; the only countries where Wal-Mart employed more than 50,000 people as of July 7 were Canada, Mexico, and the U.K. For all the hype of Wal-Mart China, which was supposed to prove an explosive mix of thriving Supercenter and emerging super-power, the company only operates 55 Wal-Marts and three Sam's Clubs, employing 28,000 people in a country of over 1 billion. As Alan Rugman, Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy and Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, puts it "It's not competing globally. It's not a player at all in Asia and hardly of any significance in Europe." Rugman believes retailers will stay regional rather than global, so important is local knowledge to the business of serving customers.

Why then, the widely held perception that the corporation is everywhere? William H. Marling's How American Is Globalization? is devoted to answering this question: The tendency to assume globalization means Americanization, it seems, extends well past the world's largest corporation.

Marling places much of the blame on the fact that Americans are traveling more than ever, and the way we all process enormously complex foreign landscapes lends itself to skewed perceptions. Awash in the unfamiliar, we filter the unknown and target what we know: golden arches and smiley faces, swooshes and apples. The stranger the place, the harder we search for what we recognize. Much misguided journalism emerges from tortured over-analysis of these brief moments of recognition. To a local, the golden arches are simply one among a heap of choices, little noticed and likely restricted to heavily trafficked tourist areas. To the traveler, they loom large and perhaps ominous, garish symbols of diminished authenticity and global hegemony.

There is an extraordinary ethnocentricity, Marling explains, in the mindset that sees a McDonald's in Calcutta and assumes fast food itself is an American phenomenon (street food, anyone?), or watches a Hollywood movie and assumes boilerplate action films are a response to American, rather than global demand. Much of what is simply modern—increased standards of efficiency and hygeine—travelers tag American, and carry home reports of creeping Americanization. French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has said that the West suffers from a "penitential narcissism," and it is this sorrowful self-obsession that tempts travelers to survey entire continents and see only mirrors.

None of which is to say globalization is not real, or that Wal-Mart doesn't participate in a global economy. As Jon Jacobs, an analyst at consulting firm Cantor Point, put it, "Wal-Mart has tremendously sophisticated logistics," and the company's failures or successes will be measured on a case by case basis. The company's supply chain, at least, is bi-regional, and its buying power in China far outweighs its selling power. But much of what Wal-Mart does, its Asian and European competitors do as well, and they do it with a far more nuanced understanding of local demand.

Those who fear Wal-Mart's coming global takeover would do well to follow the advice of Wal-Mart Watch: Just wait five years. The cultural diversity they so value may yet prove to be more resilient than anyone—Wal-Mart included—ever anticipated.