A Hard Bargain

Many of the same people who hate Wal-Mart's ruthless bottom-line practices can't resist its low prices.

July 07, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Add Christy Yeoumans to the I-Hate-Wal-Mart club, a vast group whose members can be found seemingly everywhere - including the packed parking lot of the Wal-Mart in Hunt Valley on a recent morning.

"Wal-Mart is all that is horrible about corporate America," Yeoumans, 29, says, tossing a couple of Wal-Mart bags into her car. "It's the biggest, worst corporate store in America. It's funny you caught us here. We never shop here ... much."

"I absolutely despise this place," her sister-in-law Rachel Yeoumans says, "but they do have good prices."

Indeed, Christy Yeoumans' sons, 6-year-old Joey and 2-year-old Gavin, were already wearing their brand-new $3.50 sandals just off the shelves of Wal-Mart. For a total of $40, she also picked up Liquid-Plumr and a grill brush.

"And your bathing suit, Mom," Joey reminds her.

Welcome to the Wal-Mart Paradox, sighs Al Norman, a Greenfield, Mass., resident who has fought against unwanted development for more than a decade.

Most everyone he knows claims to hate no other company more. Yet every day he watches in frustration as no other company attracts more shoppers.

One of the original Wal-Mart haters - he blames the company and its big-box ilk for suburban sprawl - Norman is joined by growing numbers of people with a beef against the ubiquitous retailer:

Most recently, a gender-discrimination case filed by six female employees in 2001 was turned into a class action lawsuit to include 1.6 million former and current employees. The suit claims Wal-Mart paid women less and promoted them less often than their male counterparts - something that has helped keep the company on the National Organization for Women's "Merchant of Shame" list for two years running now.

More trouble

The suit is just the latest trouble to land on Wal-Mart's doorstep. Previously, the company has been charged with hiring illegal immigrants to clean its stores, locking workers in at night and denying them overtime pay and using subcontractors in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and China that operate sweatshops.

Add all this to the perennial Wal-Mart enemies: the anti-sprawl activists in communities from California to Florida who have squashed company efforts to open new Supercenters, for example, and groups such as the United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters that continue to condemn its anti-union policies.

How bad has anti-Wal-Mart sentiment gotten? The company, which bills itself as a friendly, small-town neighbor, has even earned the enmity of that other symbol of national wholesomeness, Miss America.

Carolyn Sapp, Miss America 1992, is a spokeswoman for www.WalmartVersusWomen.com who spends much of her time educating people about how the world's largest company uses overseas sweatshops, stocks its shelves with mostly overseas products and "pays poverty wages ... all for greed."

Somehow, though, all this antipathy ends outside Wal-Mart's doors.

"I don't know how someone can read a headline that says Wal-Mart discriminates against women or that they lock up workers at night to finish inventory without paying them, and then that same person can find themselves at a Wal-Mart checkout line a few hours later," says Norman, who helps communities fight big-box expansion through his Web site, www.Sprawl-Bust ers.com. "It's a disconnect. We, as a nation, seem to have a great tolerance to shrug off negative stories if we can save a few cents on Kleenex."

Such talk causes pain in Bentonville, Ark., corporate home of the retailer. Just because Wal-Mart is huge does not mean it is lacking a heart, says a company spokesman.

"The criticism, to be very honest with you, hurts," Gus Whitcomb says. "This is a company that is trying to help. We save the nation's consumers more than $12 billion annually. This is a company trying to help middle-class and low-end families make a better living.

"When people attack you, it hurts," the spokesman says. "When you're a big company, people take shots at you. We're just ending up on people's agenda as a convenient way to make a point. And often, their point just isn't valid."

Surely, any bruised feelings are likely eased by a look at the company's bottom line.

Despite the shots, Wal-Mart boasted sales of almost $256 billion last year. Its profit topped $9 billion. And it owns more than 5,000 stores worldwide, employs more than 1.2 million workers and 138 million customers walk through its doors weekly.

By the end of fiscal year 2005, the retailer is expected to add 40 to 45 discount stores and 230 to 240 Supercenters in the states. Internationally, it will open 130 to 140 stores. Some of those stores will be conversions or relocations of regular discount stores to Supercenters.

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