Sunday, January 14, 2007

Two reads on Wal-Mart

Originally uploaded by Tidewater Muse.
With the new Wal-Mart opening here in Portsmouth this week, my ambivalence about Wal-Mart is reaching a new high. On the one hand, I welcome not needing to drive to Suffolk or Chesapeake or Norfolk to shop at the always low prices store. On the other hand, what is Wal-Mart doing to us?

Two articles from Fast Company are worth reading, again. First, we have Charles Fishman's story of the Vlasic pickles from the December 2003 issue of Fast Company:
A gallon-sized jar of whole pickles is something to behold. The jar is the size of a small aquarium. The fat green pickles, floating in swampy juice, look reptilian, their shapes exaggerated by the glass. It weighs 12 pounds, too big to carry with one hand. The gallon jar of pickles is a display of abundance and excess; it is entrancing, and also vaguely unsettling. This is the product that Wal-Mart fell in love with: Vlasic's gallon jar of pickles.

Wal-Mart priced it at $2.97--a year's supply of pickles for less than $3! "They were using it as a 'statement' item," says Pat Hunn, who calls himself the "mad scientist" of Vlasic's gallon jar. "Wal-Mart was putting it before consumers, saying, This represents what Wal-Mart's about. You can buy a stinkin' gallon of pickles for $2.97. And it's the nation's number-one brand."

Therein lies the basic conundrum of doing business with the world's largest retailer. By selling a gallon of kosher dills for less than most grocers sell a quart, Wal-Mart may have provided a ser-vice for its customers. But what did it do for Vlasic? The pickle maker had spent decades convincing customers that they should pay a premium for its brand. Now Wal-Mart was practically giving them away. And the fevered buying spree that resulted distorted every aspect of Vlasic's operations, from farm field to factory to financial statement.
Conundrum alright; they'll drive suppliers out of business.

Fast forward to a year ago. In the January 2006 edition of Fast Company, Mr. Fishman wrote about Snapper lawn mowers and "The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart." From the article:
Selling Snapper lawn mowers at Wal-Mart wasn't just incompatible with Snapper's future--Wier thought it was hazardous to Snapper's health. Snapper is known in the outdoor-equipment business not for huge volume but for quality, reliability, durability. A well-maintained Snapper lawn mower will last decades; many customers buy the mowers as adults because their fathers used them when they were kids. But Snapper lawn mowers are not cheap, any more than a Viking range is cheap. The value isn't in the price, it's in the performance and the longevity.

You can buy a lawn mower at Wal-Mart for $99.96, and depending on the size and location of the store, there are slightly better models for every additional $20 bill you're willing to put down--priced at $122, $138, $154, $163, and $188. That's six models of lawn mowers below $200. Mind you, in some Wal-Marts you literally cannot see what you are buying; there are no display models, just lawn mowers in huge cardboard boxes.

The least expensive Snapper lawn mower--a 19-inch push mower with a 5.5-horsepower engine--sells for $349.99 at full list price. Even finding it discounted to $299, you can buy two or three lawn mowers at Wal-Mart for the cost of a single Snapper.

If you know nothing about maintaining a mower, Wal-Mart has helped make that ignorance irrelevant: At even $138, the lawn mowers at Wal-Mart are cheap enough to be disposable. Use one for a season, and if you can't start it the next spring (Wal-Mart won't help you out with that), put it at the curb and buy another one. That kind of pricing changes not just the economics at the low end of the lawn-mower market, it changes expectations of customers throughout the market. Why would you buy a walk-behind mower from Snapper that costs $519? What could it possibly have to justify spending $300 or $400 more?
Well, pickles and lawn mowers are two things I never buy at Wal-Mart.

And, yes, Friday will find me at the new Wal-Mart, walking the aisles to see what sort of a Wal-Mart Portsmouth ranks. Do we get a high-end or a low-end Wal-Mart? Like I need to ask?

1 comment:

  1. Monday
    15 January

    Thanks for finding those two stories. I've now written a book about Wal-Mart's impact on us — our towns, our jobs, the inside of our brains — called "The Wal-Mart Effect." If you liked the stories, you'll like the book.

    You can check it out here:

    ...and here:

    It's out just this month in paperback, and goes well beyond those two original stories. It's in bookstores, and also likely in your local library. Enjoy your visit to the new Wal-Mart.

    Charles Fishman
    Author, "The Wal-Mart Effect"