NEW YORK — It’s well known in the industry how Wal-Mart has reshaped the retail landscape. But how much is understood about how Wal-Mart’s low-price model has shifted the U.S. economy?
WWD spoke with Charles Fishman, Fast Company senior writer and author of a just-released book titled “The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works — and How It’s Transforming the American Economy.” Fishman’s book examines the impact of the publicly traded, but notoriously private, company on the world economy and culture.
WWD: What is “the Wal-Mart effect”?
Charles Fishman: Wal-Mart touches the life of every American every day. At the most basic level, what we pay for almost all consumer products is affected by Wal-Mart. At the larger level, Wal-Mart shapes what products are offered and what the quality of those products are. After 100 years in business, Levi Strauss had to design a whole new line of apparel, of lesser quality and lesser price, just to put merchandise in Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart effect is all the ways that Wal-Mart shapes the economy. Wal-Mart is not just another company; it’s the biggest company in the history of human civilization.
WWD: What was the genesis of the book?
C.F.: A lot is written about Wal-Mart, but we don’t really know that much because Wal-Mart is so secretive. It’s as private as a public company could be.
WWD: What about Wal-Mart do we as a nation find so fascinating?
C.F.: You have no trouble in starting a conversation about Wal-Mart with anyone in this country, that’s an indication of the degree to which it really does touch everyone’s life. There’s this deep ambivalence in the American character — we don’t want to pay more for something than we have to and yet we don’t quite connect the dots between low prices and the societal costs of those prices.
WWD: What information did you find most surprising during your research?
C.F.: It’s astonishing that Wal-Mart changes the way we think about the world. When Wal-Mart offers a microwave oven for $29, we wonder why someone else would charge $100 for something Wal-Mart sells for $30. Literally it changes what we think things should cost and it changes our attitude about the durability of things. When a $49 television breaks, you don’t find someone to fix it, you buy a new one.