A very public slugfest

Does a punch at Walmart give retailing a black eye?

The Black Friday that kicked off the just-concluded Christmas shopping season was one for the record books, sort of. Walmart said its sales were the highest ever for the day; a union-supported group said it turned out more protesters at Walmart stores than ever before.

There was lot of back-and-forth about how widespread and how effective the protests—which focused on improving pay and working conditions for Walmart employees and protecting complainers from management retaliation—actually were. Unsurprisingly, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart—known as OUR Walmart and backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers—and the company disagreed about the number of stores affected and the number of protesters who were outsiders rather than employees. The sides had filed unfair labor practices charges against each other earlier, a sure sign that they were not going to see eye-to-eye on very much.

Whether the facts will ever be sorted out is unimportant. What counts is that most Americans probably saw or read about the protests in the news, and even some shoppers who love Walmart for its low prices may be put off by the depictions of its employment practices. Granted that most folks in the retail grocery business wish Walmart no good, but does the public see retailers in general as being all that different from one another? A fast-growing segment of our economy is in low-paying service jobs, many of them in retail and many of them part-time, despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ finding that a huge number of those part-timers would like to work full-time.

Regardless of how OUR Walmart’s efforts turn out, the publicity they receive could prompt more shoppers to begin judging retail companies by how they treat their employees. And social media make causing a fuss easier than it has ever been. Companies seeking to avoid a negative image will need to apply the type of intelligent analysis and solutions that have been well-known around the supermarket industry for decades. Just look at Wegmans, Publix and the rest of the usual suspects. They run profitable grocery chains and they consistently rank high in surveys of the best places to work and of customer satisfaction.

The extent to which customer revulsion at a retailer’s employment practices translates into lost business could be difficult, maybe impossible to measure. People tend to put price before principle, and bad publicity about how workers are treated is unlikely to cause customers to leave in droves. However, a high-traffic, low-margin business does not have to lose 20% of its shoppers to feel the pain. If 5% decide to shop elsewhere that would be a serious blow, especially when Wall Street analysts start issuing sell recommendations.

Of course, this whole thing could be a flash in the pan. But do not count on it. Think about Occupy Wall Street, a movement so loosely organized it could barely be called a movement. OWS has been out of the news for many months, but the publicity it received changed the topic of the national conversation from the deficit to income disparity. Ideas and impressions can last long after the people who brought them forward have moved on.


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