Wal-Mart: not as evil lately

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in 2003, I opined that Wal-Mart is evil. I haven’t shopped at a Wal-Mart since the early 2000s. I don’t see that changing anytime soon either. Granted, it is hardly the only retail establishment that treats its employees like dirt. Sadly most retailers will not pay their employees a living wage, and that often includes the managers. So Wal-Mart is not unique, but it is a particularly egregious offender as well as omnipresent. So it deserves to be singled out for my scorn.

I keep hoping that Wal-Mart executives will make some catastrophic mistakes and be driven out of business. This seems unlikely to happen, even if their growth in the United States has leveled off. This may be due in part to the recession, but is just as likely because they have saturated the market. Wal-Mart’s newest territories to conquer include the inner cities, such as here in Washington D.C. Their big box stores will have to be downsized to fit into these denser communities. Wal-Mart is rarely welcomed. Many cities are doing their best to dissuade Wal-Mart from coming.

Wal-Mart employees are still getting screwed, which is infuriating but no longer news. However, Wal-Mart’s prices have not been quite as low recently. Part of it reflects increased costs. Their supply chains have been squeezed about as tight as they can be squeezed. Since food is a larger part of their business, rising food prices has also squeezed them. Their not quite-as-low-prices may also reflect a reality that they have squeezed out most of the competition, which gives them the freedom to raise prices and consequently raise profits. However, their profits are reasonably flat or falling, at least here in the United States.

Wal-Mart rarely has altruistic motives, which is why their recent announcement made in conjunction with First Lady Michele Obama made headlines and captured my attention. Wal-Mart is beginning a multiyear campaign to improve the healthfulness of its food. Obama, who has made improving childhood nutrition her special project, was effusive with praise for the retailer for this new direction.

Wal-Mart’s motives are at best only tangentially altruistic. Its executives may be evil, but they have discerned that this health food trend is one they can ride toward increased profitability. In one of these strange quirks of fate, by selling healthier food not only will they increase their profits but they also may well move the entire moribund food market away from unhealthy processed foods toward foods that, while probably not healthy, are at least healthier. This might actually be palatable to Republicans as well, who would certainly object if the government required it.

This matters because Wal-Mart has become the nation’s de facto supermarket, in addition to being the nation’s largest retailer. When a retailer has as much influence on the market as Wal-Mart has, our food companies are forced to tow the line. This should mean that processed foods that Wal-Mart will sell, including presumably most of its store brands, will have fewer calories, less fat, less sugar and will be made from fewer and more natural ingredients. Perhaps there will also be fewer additives in the food as well. Most likely, once our tongues get over the shock, we will realize these healthier products also taste a lot better.

The food that Wal-Mart sells may begin to resemble, well, food. My late mother, if she were to shop at a Wal-Mart today, would probably question whether much of the food on its shelves even qualified as food. Food should be healthy to eat. Much of the crap that we consume these days simply is not. The good parts like fiber and vitamins are the first things bleached out, and are replaced with sugars, salts, fats and combinations of artificial chemicals. They are designed to make us consume more of them but are nutritionally empty, if not actually harmful to us.

In many parts of the country, you buy food at Wal-Mart because there are really no other alternatives. This includes inner cities, where if you can find vegetables they are probably only at liquor stores. These food deserts result in limited or no places to buy healthy food, which results in people living off fast food. In many communities, the Wal-Mart is your only grocer, or other food stores are prohibitively expensive. So as Wal-Mart introduces these areas to healthier food, it is good for everyone, including Wal-Mart’s bottom line. Even their employees, who often have to buy food where they shop, will benefit. If your diet consists of a preponderance of unhealthy foods like Pop Tarts, anything you eat that is healthier will leave you feeling better and (doubtless this has not escaped Wal-Mart’s attention) more alert, and hence more productive.

I don’t seem to have the power to kill Wal-Mart. It seems to be here to stay, whether I like it or not. I still do not plan to shop there, but given the oceans of obese people who frequent Wal-Marts (documented on the People of Wal-Mart site), they may begin to feel healthier. Perhaps they will even lose some weight and live longer and healthier lives. This would be good. Perhaps this is the start of Americans discovering real food again, and the beginning of the end of our unhealthy obsession with processed Frankenfood.