After reading The Retail Revolution by Nelson Lichtenstein, I realized a couple of things about Walmart, the subject of his book. First, the actual retail revolution they spearheaded and helped create is one of the single most important things to happen in America since the end of WWII. And secondly, all the criticisms that people lay at Walmart’s feet seem to be pretty much justified. I don’t shop at Walmart very often but I never had a real concrete reason for why I did so other than “they don’t treat their employees well” which is a vague and uneducated reason at best. Lichtenstein offers a clear-eyed and well-researched look into the history, culture and modern day activates of the largest private employer of American citizens in America today.
The book is generally split into three parts; a mostly historical narrative, a deep dive into labor and labor relations within Walmart, and lastly a look at the company as an international entity that operates largely independent of America or other countries where they practice their own international diplomacy and trade that effects everybody. Each part of the book is mixed with the others and builds in both complexity and scope. It’s astonishing to try to figure out the sheer size and power of Walmart these days. The later part of the book, which delves into their operations in China is mindboggling. Walmart singlehandedly destroyed a way of business in China that had existed in a mostly continuous fashion for centuries in a matter of two decades. It’s astonishing and very interesting. The book does a good job of simply explaining to the reader how things operate and when it zooms out to the national and international level, where it’s basically economic entities interacting and competing with each other, the book is a lot of fun and it’s easy to be impressed with Walmart. Anytime a person or company just so revolutionizes the way the world operates is impressive and engrossing to read about.
I say impressive, but I’ll never say admirable because when you read the book and understand how Walmart treats its workforce, it’s very disheartening. The culture that Sam Walton and his successors have built is extremely abusive and hard on the men and women in the storefronts that make these billions of dollars of profit possible. The abuse and harassment seem to be non-stop and nerve wracking. Lichtenstein has collected an impressive amount of sources, examples and first hand accounts that shows just how much of a pain it must be to work there. Managers at the store level are given extremely aggressive goals to meet and if they don’t, they are demoted or fired. They are expected to run a fully stocked store with a skeleton crew. The financial rewards are so important to their well being that Walmart has endured a rash of lawsuits and investigations that show repeated manipulation of workers time cards and paychecks. The company is hell bent on squeezing every last cent of profit it can from its stores and employees. I do not question their right to make a profit, nor their ruthless competition with other stores. I get all of that and to a certain degree I agree with it. What I don’t get, what I find so reprehensible about Walmart, is how much they use and abuse their employees. There is not balance to their corporate structure or culture. I know that this kind of activity goes on at other retailers, such as Target or Kmart, but it feels like this stuff is worst at Walmart. Also, as I write this I realize that it doesn’t matter what goes on at other stores. Walmart, Target, anybody have a responsibility to act right simply because it is the right thing to do.
That last point reveals one of the biggest flaws with the book. It focuses on Walmart, which is fine and reasonable, but it focuses too much on Walmart. I would have really enjoyed seeing a comparison of some sort with other similar companies. Obviously there is a limit to how much these comparisons would work, since Walmart is bigger than all of it’s primary competitors combined, but Lichtenstein could have made a better effort of providing context within the industry for how and why Walmart acts the way it does.
The first part of the book focuses on the history of the company and focuses a lot on the life of Sam Walton, the founder and mythological figure in Walmart’s history. The book doesn’t focus on him, it can’t afford to really, as much as I would have liked. The book conveys that he was a driven and talented man who had vision and knew what he wanted. Both the book and reality make that abundantly clear. That being said, he is somewhat of a cypher even after finishing this book. A religious patriarch with mildly racist undertones to his personality who hated the North, Yankees and unions, we don’t get much insight into him as a man besides the general traits of a man of his generation from the South. In that way, he actually acts somewhat of a stereotype for his gender and class. He’s a weird version of an every man who made billions by the time he died. Beyond going into his experiences as a young businessman and a couple of key insights he had over the years, the book does not delve to far into what made him who he was. Maybe it’s not necessary in the big picture, but I can’t imagine that’s really true. Everything about the company was created in his mold and it would be nice to know a little more about the man.
There are few entities that really matter and effect the world more than Walmart. That list is short and it includes mostly actual countries, the UN maybe and international trade organizations. Walmart’s power should not be underestimated but it should also be better understood than it currently is by most people. Walmart may be the devil himself when it comes to how it treats its employees but before you believe that, you should really understand the how and why of why it does what it does. This book explains that in great detail and if you care about our consumer culture, international trade or labor rights, you should read this book. I found it fascinating.