A new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price trashes the much-maligned discount retailer. What the company’s executives are now encountering is the high cost of progress. The political reaction against Wal-Mart is the latest iteration of the fear and loathing that greets any major innovation in American retailing.
A new paper from the Competitive Enterprise Institute details the long history of resistance to retail advances. In the late 19th century, the advent of department stores caused outrage. The same reaction met the rise of mail-order catalogs, which were burned in public at the behest of local retailers. The rise of chain stores in the 1920s also inflamed local merchants, who claimed that they threatened “the future of the children.”
Now, it’s Wal-Mart’s turn. Founder Sam Walton realized that by offering customers discount prices he could make more profits based on increased volume. Hence, the Wal-Mart revolution, and the movement against it that The High Cost celebrates. Wal-Mart is faring the film surprisingly well, since its release has coincided with the publication of studies that debunk the image of the company crucifying its employees on a cross of low wages and nonexistent benefits as it forces them onto welfare.
The first thing to know about low price is that it has a wonderfully low cost for Wal-Mart customers, a category that includes 8 in 10 Americans a year. A study by Global Insight–paid by Wal-Mart to study the company’s economic effects, but granted independence–estimated that Wal-Mart lowered the consumer price index by 3.1 percent between 1985 and 2004, making for $263 billion in consumer savings by 2004. In a widely cited report, Jason Furman of New York University notes that Wal-Mart and other discount stores make “consumers better off by the equivalent of 25 percent of annual food spending.”
But only at the price of wage slavery? No, Wal-Mart’s average wage of roughly $9 an hour is on par with other retailers. Because the jobs tend to be low-skill, retail workers earn less than the average wage for all U.S. workers. According to Furman, this has been the case for the past 20 years and holds true even in areas without Wal-Marts.
Three-quarters of Wal-Mart workers are full time. Other retailers have work forces that are only 20 percent to 40 percent full time. And Wal-Mart offers health insurance to full-time and part-time employees, which is rare in retail. Eighty-six percent of Wal-Mart employees have health insurance; 48 percent through Wal-Mart’s plan.
Although The High Cost attacks Wal-Mart as a welfare queen, only about 5 percent of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid, the same proportion as other retailers. Furman points out that a Wal-Mart worker who has to decide whether to buy the company’s family insurance policy at a cost of $1,800 annually or take Medicaid coverage instead is wise to go on Medicaid. “The beneficiary of choosing Medicaid is the worker,” Furman writes, “not Wal-Mart.”
Because Wal-Mart is a behemoth, critics assume that it can change its wage and benefits policies on a whim. According to Furman, Wal-Mart earns $6,000 per employee. That’s below the national average of $9,000 per employee. Wal-Mart makes $288 billion of revenue on $277 billion of costs, a 3.7 percent profit margin on costs, which leaves little room for error.
It is true, as the CEI paper notes, that Wal-Mart jobs are poorly paid compared to unionized jobs. Grocery clerks at unionized stores in California get paid nearly $18 an hour. But Wal-Mart passes its lower costs on to customers, who pay 17 percent to 39 percent less for groceries there.
In this sense, the self-styled humanitarians who object to Wal-Mart are narrowed-minded defenders of a special interest. If they get their way, they might better the lot of retail employees, but at the cost of the community, including people who aren’t fortunate enough to have a retail job but who still have to buy clothes and food. And so the anti-Wal-Mart zealots oppose the general welfare and an innovation that has promoted it. Hasn’t it always been thus?