What Walmart Needs is a Jacob Marley Moment

by gillis

The other day I shared a newspaper article with a friend about the money Walmart has spent to appeal a seven thousand dollar settlement in a trampling death in 2008 at one of their Black Friday sales. I mentioned thinking that it was a poor use of money. I would have shared that they are culpable for this death and whatever injuries others incurred due to their pricing policies and lack of adequate staffing. Certainly no one goes out to shop for gifts expecting life-or-death situations. But before I could share my thoughts, my friend stated that the money they spent was necessary in order to “keep all the weirdos from coming out of the woodwork to make claims leading to a hideous class action lawsuit.”  In her view, this was just good business practice.

I said nothing further, but flashed back to the time I spent working at a consulting firm with people who, like my friend, made their living by helping businesses large and small maximize their profits in a variety of ways. During my tenure, I saw some sketchy things. Occasions when intelligent folks talked themselves into doing things that were not always ethical or even decent in order to serve their clients’ needs. In many ways, the consultants were the mirror image of the litigious attorneys they reviled – each on one slippery side of the equation out to get what they could. Opposing strategists enjoying a chess game which has the potential to push all of us into a darker, less human landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that helping businesses get off the ground and stay afloat, finding ways for businesses to create and market their brand, are real services that keep our economy moving. This is what I imagine what friend’s company does for businesses. But Walmart doesn’t need any help in maximizing their profits. Walmart needs help in seeing how they could revolutionize retail in ways that would help society. Walmart needs an editor to help them pull their story out of its repetitive rut.

Imagine if you can, thinking about Walmart and feeling warmly towards them because they are known for respecting and celebrating their workers -the way Ben and Jerry’s once did. Can you picture a humane, joyful Walmart? I can. They have the money to be creative and generous, so why aren’t they?  Whether or not they realize it, businesses create their own narrative in how they relate to the world around them. They can hire consulting folks to write their story, but the real narrative is being written and edited with each transaction, each court date, each hire, and each fire. Walmart can give millions of dollars to charity and publicize that in order to garner postive press, but if you and I don’t know anyone who has loved working for Walmart, the story reads like a fantasy and we don’t buy it. Walmart is the main character in a Dickens tale and each time they have the opportunity to reverse the plot, they resist, so the protagonist learns nothing. The story remains flat, boring, and unreadable for most. No one wants to read about Ebeneezer Scrooge sitting alone in a dark room counting counting counting his money. We want Scrooge to see what that money could do to create life and community! Then we want him to join that community -without trying to control it for his own purposes.

I stayed out of the stores yesterday. I have no desire to support business practices that encourage, or at least allow, barbaric behavior in the pursuit of a bargain. I am a very infrequent Walmart shopper, perhaps 2-3 times a year when I cannot find a needed item elsewhere for a dance recital costume or class project. There are several big box stores I do shop at and I realize that their business practices do not necessarily reflect my worldview.  As my children grow and need fewer things like diapers, I will visit these stores less and less frequently, and for that, I’m thankful. I know that there are many others out there who are compelled to shop at Walmart because their budgets and geography make it difficult to impossible for them to choose differently. I hope I’m able to see Walmart have its Jacob Marley moment in my lifetime. If they became true community members, others would surely follow and the retail landscape could be a technicolor place.