October 25, 2005

Why Not Recognize that Critics Had an Impact?

John Wagner writes about the new lower-cost health insurance plan:

What would be wrong with saying that sharp words from critics, coupled with input from employees about their needs, made the company realize that perhaps there were other options?

Good question. It's not a matter of morality -- right and wrong; it's a matter of strategy -- win or lose.

I think publicly recognizing that Wal-Mart critics had an impact on them will only embolden the critics to speak even more sharply, which is not in Wal-Mart's interest.

Personally, I think it's obvious that WM is partly responding to critics, but in this case, and in many others, Wal-Mart is not responding in the way that critics like. It is offering a lower-cost health-insurance option, when critics really want it to pick up the tab completely. It is offering to enforce quasi-Western standards in suppliers' factories, but critics are yelling that Wal-Mart is the cause of the manufacturing employment fall. It has been modifying the battleship grey and blue box to meet local design demands, but many critics don't want Wal-Mart at all, and accuse it of causing sprawl and destruction of rural communities. It is offering to lessen its environmental impact, but only in ways that will improve the bottom line. In other words, WM will not cooperate directly with its critics because they don't want cooperation. Neither will it recognize their contribution. Instead, WM has searched for partners to credit who are less vocal, and far more willing to accept changes that will benefit both WM and the public.

UPDATE: Mick Arran's views seem to confirm my suspicion that critics will just want more and more and more:

The problem here, of course, is that so many standard Wal-Mart practices are illegal/unethical/borderline criminal that nothing short of a complete makeover is going to do much good. They cheat and intimidate their employees, connive and manipulate to destroy their competition, browbeat suppliers, and in general treat the market as a place where, as far as they’re concerned, it’s their way or the highway.
What good does it do Wal-Mart to admit that these types of views inform its decisions?

I disagree that "many standard Wal-Mart practices are illegal/unethical/borderline criminal". As far as I know, nearly all of Wal-Mart's practices are retail standards. Those standards are too low for many of its critics, and an organization like Wal-Mart that won't revolutionize will always have mud slung at them.

Of course, Wal-Mart has violated laws, and many complaints against it are justified. However, I think it is unwarranted to abstract from individual cases of misconduct to general operating principles. And it seems to me that many people abstract not even from individual cases but from the beliefs of others around them.

As far as I know nobody has performed a study demonstrating that Wal-Mart is more lawless than competitors, when adjusting for size... anybody up for it?

Posted by Kevin on October, 25 2005 at 11:29 AM