Sunday, February 19, 2006

An Impressive Coup D'état

Sam Walton believed that, “If some community, for whatever reason, doesn’t want us in there, we aren’t interested in going in and creating a fuss.” With countless communities standing up to the store and WAL-MART attempting to bullying its way in regardless, obviously times have changed. In his place Lee Scott asks rhetorically, “When you have a group of people, a small group of people, who don’t want you in a community, does that mean you aren’t going to go there?” Indeed, the changing of the guard after Walton’s death also ushered in a new era of political sophistication for WAL-MART. The head office in Bentonville now fully understands the importance of their image in a community, and desperately wants to avoid being branded an outsider (which is, of course, exactly what they are.) WAL-MART now engages in a year round political campaign to define themselves to the public, hiring hundreds of lobbyists and media consultants to work on the national and local level. This campaign takes place not only in communities with potential stores, but well-established markets such as the one I work in.

The chief tool for getting this message across was through charity work. One slow morning on the desk the head of community involvement gave me a crash course in how our store raised $143,000 for charity in the past year. All requests for donations are received in writing and then “everything goes on a gift card.” She said $25-50 certificates work better for the company since it is simpler and you know that the whole amount will be spent in the store (not to mention that the store ends up giving less actual money since a sizable percentage is the markup/profit…) In addition to this matching funds are given for on-site fundraisers, like hot dog sales, and grants are given for such things as the Teacher of the Year Award. Doing some generous math in my head I didn’t even get up to half the total on the board; where does the rest of the money come from? Well, there are the employee fundraisers she offered, but (and this was what I was looking for) a far bigger chunk comes from claims. In order to inflate the total WAL-MART tacks on more than $60,000 in annual grocery claims since some, but not all, of this is donated to local food banks. Ah ha, this was the slight of hand I was looking for!

Like anything else, this public image campaign took place on the backs of its workers. The head of community involvement had mentioned the employee fundraisers, but I knew how small scale these projects were. I have never been solicited for donations more in my life than the past three months while working at WAL-MART. There were raffle tickets, potluck dinners, and flat out monetary donations, going to Barbara Bush’s Children’s Miracle Network, Law Enforcement’s Torch Run for the Special Olympics, and the Sunshine Fund. The last of these is the most interesting since the Sunshine Fund goes to associates-in-need in our store. Generally the associate-in-need would be nameless, but one of the recipients I did know had gotten really sick and was left with unaffordable bills for what the health plan would not cover. Obviously these fundraisers that targeted already destitute employees weren’t huge money makers, but I was surprised to find that employees pieced together $200 out-of-pocket and the Sunshine Fund chipped in another $100 for my friend. It was touching to see how readily my co-workers would give for one of their own, perhaps thinking of how close they were to being in the same position. I couldn’t help but become intensely angry at the irony of the whole situation. Associates who were paid so little were asked to give on WAL-MART’s behalf, to enhance the store’s image and pick up the slack for its employees living in poverty.

But the campaign seemed to be working. Our Supercenter was the most profitable in the state and was constantly receiving favorable press. The pinnacle came when our store manager was named Business Person of the Year by the county’s Chamber of Commerce. Recognized for the stores donations to charity and his personal community involvement, he was rewarded with a banquet in his honor. It was an impressive coup d'état, even by WAL-MART standards.


College Clint said...

"a far bigger chunk comes from claims."

What does this mean exactly?

Anonymous said...

How many weeks do hou have to work 40 hours to be made full time

Anonymous said...

to answer these questions claims is what the store writes off as returns, food nearing expiration, damaged goods etc. and you need to work 12 consecutive weeks full-time to become a full time employee and after that you need to work full time for a year to earn benefits unless your 2years part time comes first.