There are few companies under tighter scrutiny than Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart's move to sell generic pharmaceuticals for $4 was even spun as a drugstore killer, rather than a penny-pinching consumer windfall, at least in mainstream media.
Wal-Mart could strike oil, cure cancer, and send the Cubs to the World Series -- it wouldn't matter. Papers would still write about unauthorized drilling rights, cruelty to laboratory test tubes, and denying a goat its right to an eternal curse.
So how surprised was I at the onslaught of venom spewed at the Wal-Marting Across America blog, after it was revealed as the writing of two experienced freelance journalists hitting the road to chronicle life through the heartland, bankrolled by Wal-Mart's own Working Families for Wal-Mart?
Not very. In fact, just by waxing favorably on Wal-Mart, I may be putting myself in the line of fire. Is there dirt to be dug up by phoning some of my old girlfriends? Am I donning a mullet in my yearbook photo? Will my pitiful junior varsity free-throw percentage see the light of day?
If Sam Walton could only log on now
Wal-Mart's latest round of pundit target practice comes courtesy of three distinct online endeavors that have come under fire this month.
- The Wal-Marting Across America blog, which detailed a 10-day RV trek through the parking lots of the leading discount department store, is knocked for not revealing the identity of the writer and Washington Post freelance photographer logging the miles on Wal-Mart's dime.
- An online wish list that guides kids through picking out toys with the assistance of animated elves, then sends the list to their parents, won the ire of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The group claims that the list nags parents, and that the Wally and Marty -- the cartoon elves -- cheer as kids pile on the holiday gifts that they want.
- Wal-Mart's School Your Way site was launched in August as a light version of a social networking experiment. It was hoping to use the back-to-school shopping season to become a popular hub of youthful effervescence. It failed and closed up shop just a few weeks later. I'll admit to being one of the many who knocked Wal-Mart for this. But I took it to the company because it gave up too quickly, unlike others who wondered why it even tried at all.
All three cases found cynics throwing stones at the glass houses that Wal-Mart's online endeavors have become. Problem is, their aim is off.
I'm not arguing that Wal-Mart doesn't deserve a fair share of heat for some of its practices. But lend me your ears for a few minutes, and I'll make the mainstream media's furor seem like a bar brawl with feather dusters. The press has made such an endearing habit of slamming Wal-Mart at every turn that it's even swinging away when the company is actually doing things mostly correctly.
Every day, low blows
Sam's Club isn't a warehouse concept. It's a weapon of choice for the media to drub Wal-Mart over the head with.
In many ways, it can't win. Who hasn't knocked Wal-Mart for failing to square away nuggets in the "cheap chic" goldmine that has made rival Target
Ouch. The view from the top is never all that great. It's mostly cloudy with a good chance of ire. Again, Wal-Mart -- an Inside Value stock recommendation -- deserves some of the shots it has taken over the years. It just doesn't deserve them in these particular instances.
Let's take a look at the second-biggest RV fiasco of the year (the first being that completely unfunny Robin Williams movie). There was never any doubt that this was a Wal-Mart-sponsored adventure. There was a press release issued before the journey from Nevada to Georgia, clearly spelling out the mission that "Laura and Jim" were undertaking. They would park overnight at Wal-Mart locations, and all of the supplies would be purchased exclusively at Wal-Mart. The RV was even named Wally 1!
The rub here is that Jim was never formally identified as a freelance photographer for The Washington Post. That violated the paper's policies, yet now a vilified Wal-Mart is the one apologizing for what was really a pretty neat attempt at grassroots marketing.
Then we have the evil Wally and Marty elves. How dare they encourage the toy-selection process? Let me see if I got this right. Last year, Toys "R" Us sent out its annual toy catalog, complete with stickers with phrases like "gotta have it" and "I want this" for aspiring recipients to affix to their top toy choices. Amazon.com
Wal-Mart came up with a useful tool for parents (who might, I dunno, want to know what their children want for Christmas) that's also fun for kids. All this and it gets the nag tag? I'm thoroughly convinced that someone will take jabs at Wal-Mart come February for selling candy Valentine hearts, arguing that it promotes stalking.
Finally, we get to the social networking experiment that didn't force News Corp.'s
If anything, you blew it, critics. By drawing attention to things like the Wal-Mart parking-lot excursion and the interactive wish list, and the back-to-school promotion, you're laying out the pieces for any sensible person to put together -- and come to the conclusion that Wal-Mart is a lot cooler than we all think.
It apparently gets the Internet, even if it has to dodge your blanks. Work on that aim, Wal-Mart haters. You may have just shot yourself in the foot.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has probably spent more at Wal-Mart's online store than at its offline empire in recent years. He does own shares in Netflix. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. T he Fool has a disclosure policy.