Books: It's a bit too soon to write off Wal-Mart

This demolition job on the world's biggest firm is readable but ignores its undeniable positive points, says Andrew Seth.

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

America is awash with books on Wal-Mart, but Charles Fishman has an ambitious agenda and he writes with flair. The firm offered no help, so, relying on his own research, he recorded interviews with Wal-Mart ex-employees, suppliers and watchers. These interviews are Fishman's strength - picturing a growing colossus evolving from Sam Walton's unique 1962 Arkansas creation to today's leading American chain and the world's largest company.

Fishman has great new material and presents it brilliantly, evoking the success and failure contributing to what he calls the 'Wal-Mart Effect'. The 'effect' is that Wal-Mart is so uniquely dominant in its home country that its presence influences the lives of all Americans, whether or not they shop there. It's a brave claim and a great read.

The topic is complex and Fishman has tried to achieve balance. When he fails, it's partly because he has drawn conclusions from outside Wal-Mart and often portrayed them negatively. For example, Wal-Mart's salmon sourcing at very low prices from Chile offers only one side of the supply story.

A second cause is Fishman's narrow view of competitive marketing. His 'effect' is nothing more than the ever-changing global retail business cycle. This goes on for ever and is now a global factor - as described in Supermarket Wars. Wal-Mart is a dynamic exponent that is successful in the US, although less so elsewhere.

He correctly identifies Wal-Mart's intense focus on lowest pricing, Walton's abiding credo. He provides vivid examples of those who have surfed Wal-Mart's cost-and-price waves confidently.

He also has illuminating interviews with companies impervious to Wal-Mart's blandishments, such as Snapper Lawn Mowers, which built a strong business based on quality, service and high prices, ignoring seductive Wal-Mart volume. Inevitably, there are tragedies: suppliers sucked into Wal-Mart's process without considering the implications for their remaining business and who paid the price with ultimate disappearance. One such business, the Nelson sprinkler company, provides Fishman with his epilogue.

I have real concern with Fishman's conclusions. He believes Wal-Mart today is unloved, confused and commercially faltering, but this finding is presented anecdotally and in a disturbing way. The growth of the chain has been unique in the US, and its potential global position is especially powerful. Wal-Mart is about four times the size of its nearest competitors. Price as a consumer requirement is primary and the company is best placed to exploit this worldwide.

Fishman's middle-class background seems to blind him to the permanent appeal of 'always lower price', especially to the poorer constituents of society. Wal-Mart has the capacity to adjust its strategy if change is needed. The energy and commitment that have been second to none over 40 years suggest it will not fail for lack of effort - it may be too early to write it off.

Nor do I accept Fishman's explicit warning that a death-knell is sounding for big corporations as a whole. P&G, Microsoft and Exxon have life in them yet.

He also minimises the element of choice, such a key part of the Wal-Mart story. Walton's compelling strategy became a business watchword. Its suppliers and non-suppliers chose the deals they made. If they looked ahead, they gained; if they didn't, many failed.

Where they had great brands, they were confident and prospered. P&G chose to initiate its Bentonville partnership in 1982 and has never looked back. Wal-Mart's non-unionised employees chose to work there. Some became rich, others have not. But as H Lee Scott Jnr, Wal-Mart's CEO, points out, the company does not lack for applicants choosing to work in its newest superstores.

Finally, markets everywhere throw up competitors who stand tall against Wal-Mart's price-leading cohorts. Nordstrom and Target, among department stores, spring to mind. Closer to home, Tesco has made large-scale gains in market share since Wal-Mart bought into the UK in 1999, but its subsidiary Asda seems becalmed.

It can be done, as long as the right strategic choices are made and cobblers stick firmly to lasts - the ultimate Wal-Mart message.

The Wal-Mart Effect; Charles Fishman; Allen Lane; £12.99, MT price £10.99. To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

Andrew Seth is chairman of the Ingram Partnership. He is co-author with Geoffrey Randall of Supermarket Wars, published last year by Palgrave.

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