A few weeks ago, I expressed some concerns about Wal-Mart
I've assembled below some Fools' opinions and takes on this very interesting topic. I'm also including a few intriguing snippets of posts made before my article appeared. Note that to view these posts and conversations in full, you need to either subscribe to our vibrant Fool Community of discussion boards or sign up for a 30-day free trial. Don't let the free trial scare you away -- there's no obligation and signing up is quick and painless. (Here are some compelling reasons to give our boards a whirl.)
- One-stop shopping
- Big selection
- Easy to return stuff
- Always can find one
It's a short and simple list, but if you think about it, it explains the company's success very well. In many parts of the country (if not most), Wal-Marts abound, offering vast selections of merchandise at attractive prices. It's certainly hard to compete with that.
NechesInvst cataloged his thoughts nicely, wondering what percentage of Wal-Mart workers are part-timers who don't get insurance and addressing the issue of theft from retail establishments. He also mentioned a firm that seems to offer good benefits: "It's a fine line for Wal-Mart, and these decisions which would cost (and I'm guessing here) millions of dollars should not be made lightly. Can it be done? You bet. Look at Coca-Cola." [Read the post.]
Here's the longest thread related to my article, wherein Fools wax positive and negative about the retailer. Snippets:
Rizzo21: "I don't think anyone was hired at Wal-Mart's with the promise that the company would ensure their total happiness from the wage they were paid. Here's what you will make, here's the benefits, it's your choice to accept or reject."
Kestrel2: "As a former employee of Wal-Mart, when I was young and desperate, I was frankly appalled at how employees (at my store at least) were treated. At the time I didn't really know better since I hadn't worked many places, but I guess it hit me later on in my life when I had a 'better' job. Now, I fully realize that many of their employees are glad to work there and may not be able to find a better job, and Wal-Mart certainly provides that opportunity, but I have never shopped there since I left."
Glynn54: "If Wal-Mart were willing to pay a higher salary, this might not even be an issue, but I doubt that most of us could pay insurance premiums and support a family on $20K or less. So that means more people without insurance in this country -- even though they are gainfully employed. Just because it's legal doesn't make it right -- it's shameful and it's just plain wrong."
Hokieharry: "The plain unvarnished truth is that you are paid and pay for what the market will bear. The fact that a company is very profitable has nothing to do with what they can afford to charge for benefits or what their employees must pay for them. Profit is the benefit for operating a successful business for its owners, the stockholders." Hokieharry also posted some inside info on Wal-Mart's benefits.
Jajudi reminded us that what seems meager to some seems generous to others: "I would be glad to pay $85 every two weeks for health care...."
Goofyhoofy asks a fellow poster: "Why don't you tell us what a retail employee at the local mall, a retail employee at Target, and a retail employee elsewhere makes 'in your area,' and then we'll decide if Wal-Mart is being unfair."
Arjente made a very good point, noting: "... the problem is one affecting retail workers in general. Most retail jobs, even management, even at more high-end companies, notoriously pay very poorly. Case in point, nearly 5 years ago, I left the jewelry industry, because after several years of experience in that field, I was working as an assistant manager at another large national chain, Zales Jewelers for $11.00 per hour. That equates to $22,000 base, for working days, nights, weekends, and having a large amount of responsibility. Perhaps I should have done my research better before I embarked on a career in retail, but I am happily out now." [Read the post.]
Over on another board, some Fools started crunching numbers, to see just how much it might cost Wal-Mart to be more generous. (This was in response to some posts suggesting that payroll enhancements would reduce net profits dollar for dollar, when that's not the case. They'd be taken out before taxes, for example, reducing the firm's taxable income.)
Burghy noted: "If this health insurance stuff costs, say, 12.5% of a year's profits, you would not need to raise prices by 12% to restore it to equilibrium. Wal-Mart has net margins of 3-4% so if you assumed that the increased prices would not lead to a loss of customers, you would only need to raise it, say, by 0.5% or so. Make that 1% if you want to factor in demand elasticity and crazy stuff like that."
1971Simon added: "So with the assumptions from my previous post we end up with 422,500 people needing family coverage and the same number needing single coverage. This comes to a total annual cost to Wal-Mart of: $2.27 billion! Almost 30% of last year's profits. (My math might be wrong here so please feel free to correct me.)"
AliciaClifford recommended a good book that explores in great detail how people live on Wal-Mart-like incomes: "The author of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America worked for Wal-Mart and addresses the problem of being underpaid. I recommend the book... it's very informative of the low-paid positions in the work world."
A big related issue that comes up when one discusses Wal-Mart and labor is unions. Not surprisingly, unions have been discussed on the Wal-Mart discussion board for many years. One debate on unions features more than a dozen posts.
In it, Chapman208 noted, "Except for rare circumstances, I think most unions have outlived their usefulness. Once they become powerful enough that they can dictate terms to employers, they have proven that they are too powerful. (Look at pro sports...)"
Stockemup said: "Ultimately the point is this. Unions had their day when they were a necessity and they did look out for the average worker. Today the inverse seems to be true. The worker is looking out for the union which only, in many if not most, exists to serve itself and not its members."
Goofyhoofy summarized his take thusly: "On balance, unions have made a positive contribution to our society, and I believe, continue to play an important role in counterbalance to the incredibly strong and moneyed forces of corporate America. They are not always right. Indeed, they are often wrong, and that is what you find written about in the newspapers, just as you don't read about the 100 drivers who made it home safely, but find a garish picture of the one who impaled himself on a tree at 80 mph." [Read the post.]
Another major Wal-Mart ponderable is just how much more it can grow, and how fast. Hokieharry shared an article on Wal-Mart's international growth strategy. A startling excerpt: "It will not be long, according to Julie Lyle, Wal-Mart's vice president of International marketing, before the company's revenue outside the U.S. is greater than its volume in the U.S. Five to seven years, she estimates. Which suggests that Wal-Mart's rate of international growth will accelerate enormously, considering that this year its non-U.S. revenue is between $35 billion and $38 billion, compared to the approximately $180 billion in sales generated by Wal-Mart in the U.S."
Here's perhaps the longest discussion on the Wal-Mart board -- carried out in August 2000, it features more than 300 posts. Entitled "Bad Ethics to Own Wal-Mart," it addresses the topic of socially responsible investing and retailers who sell tobacco.
In it, jbull380 noted: "I'll bet that if I look close enough I could find something that I don't like about every company I own stock in. As long as it is not illegal or covert thus taking peoples choices away, I can live with it. People know tobacco is bad for them but it is not an illegal substance. I do not smoke but I believe in personal responsibility. I hope everyone quits smoking, but until we outlaw tobacco WMT should be able to sell it. If it is so bad and evil we should outlaw it. But that will cut deeply into tax revenue. As a matter of fact I believe the government makes more on tobacco than "Big Tobacco" so who is really the bad guy?"
Finally, I noticed a very instructive post on the Wal-Mart board from a year or so ago. In it, Goofyhoofy explored whether he should succumb to temptation and buy some shares of Kmart, since they'd fallen so much. Mr. Hoofy concluded that despite the low price, the company still wasn't compelling enough to buy -- and history has so far proven him right. The shares, then around a dollar apiece, are now south of a dime apiece. Yikes. (Poor Kmart. I'm actually rooting for the company, as it's such a part of American history, tracing its roots back more than 100 years to S.S. Kresge's five-and-dime stores.)
I once more invite you to pop into the discussions above and chime in with your own thoughts. Our online Community of Fools is many thousands strong and more than a few folks would like to learn what you think about Wal-Mart and many other topics. Consider joining us!
Selena Maranjian is smarter than a speeding bullet and faster than a tall building. For more about her, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.