Kathleen Parker

If you love buying cheap salmon from Wal-Mart, you might not after reading Charles Fishman's new book, "The Wal-Mart Effect."

Few issues in American life, except perhaps the war in Iraq, are as polarizing these days as how Wal-Mart sits in our landscape, our economy and our consciousness. Fishman, a friend and former editor - but more important, the kind of reporter for whom no detail or decimal is too small to fascinate - tells the Wal-Mart story in such intricate detail that you'll never see your local store the same way again.

Wal-Mart isn't just a company. It's a global market force - a nation unto itself.

Ponder this: Americans spend $35 million every hour at Wal-Mart, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Wal-Mart is so huge and so powerful, you'll wonder how you failed to notice that the company affects not just how we shop, but how we think and live - even if we never set foot in a Wal-Mart store.

Not everyone has missed the Wal-Mart effect, of course. The company has plenty of critics, but Fishman puts in perspective not just the power of Wal-Mart, but the good that the mega-corporation does and could do. Recently, for instance, Wal-Mart announced energy- and fuel-saving plans for its stores and trucks that, if successful, could serve as a model for the nation. No one will cheer louder than Fishman if that happens. Such is the kind of global good Wal-Mart can and should do, he says.

On the home front, Fishman argues that critics are wrong when they say that Wal-Mart puts little people out of business. We (consumers) put little people out of business, he says. We vote with our wallets, and we're the ones who choose Wal-Mart over local stores. Wal-Mart, in that sense, is the ultimate model of democracy.

Consumers also have made possible the company's phenomenal growth. In 1990, Wal-Mart had just nine supercenters in the U.S. By 2000, there were 888. Wal-Mart is the No. 1 grocery retailer in the world. Between 1990 and 2000, 31 supermarket chains sought bankruptcy protection, including 27 that cited Wal-Mart as a factor.

Ah well, we say, so it goes in love, war and business. Competition is the engine that drives a capitalist society. But Fishman argues that Wal-Mart's power and scale hurt capitalism by strangling competition.

"It's not free-market capitalism," he says. "Wal-Mart is running the market. Choice is an illusion."


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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