As Wal-Mart goes, so goes the American economy, according to a growing number of analysts.
Last year Wal-Mart surpassed Exxon Mobile as the world’s largest corporation. This year, it ranked as FORTUNE magazine’s most-admired company.
Once maligned for its redneck image, some observers now say Wal-Mart might be the single best indicator of U.S. economic health.
“You might say that Wal-Mart finally belongs in corporate America,” FORTUNE wrote. “More accurately, you could say corporate America belongs to Wal-Mart.”
FORTUNE in February published a story headlined “One Nation Under Wal-Mart,” which included a variety of statistics illustrating the Bentonville, Ark.,-based chain’s economic impact.
Wal-Mart’s sales on one day last fall–$1.42 billion–were larger than the GDPs of 36 countries.
It is the biggest employer in 21 states, with more people in uniform than the U.S. Army.
It plans to grow this year by the equivalent of–take your pick–one Dow Chemical, one PepsiCo, one Microsoft or one Lockheed Martin.
Disney, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Revlon, Gillette, Campbell Soup and RJR all claim Wal-Mart as their largest customer. Wal-Mart is also the nation’s biggest seller of DVDs, groceries, toys, guns, diamonds, CDs, apparel, dog food, detergent, jewelry, sporting goods, video games, socks, bedding and toothpaste.
It is the nation’s largest film developer, optician, private truck-fleet operator, energy consumer and real estate developer.
Increasingly, financial experts are looking to the late Sam Walton’s megastore for information about consumer habits and economic health.
“Given the degree to which our collective health relies more on the insatiable American consumer than on the declining American manufacturer, does it make sense to consider Wal-Mart as today’s best economic proxy?” asked Slate.com. “Should there be a Wal-Mart Index?”
Many analysts already subscribe to a de facto Wal-Mart index.
Marc Zandi, a highly respected economist at Economy.com, lists Wal-Mart’s weekly sales as his favorite economic indicator.
“Because they’re a discount retailer, they’re one that is going to do comparatively well in a weak economic environment,” economist Scott Hoyt told Slate.com. “So if you see Wal-Mart sales start to turn negative, it’s hard to imagine that consumer spending is growing anywhere.”
Robert Slater’s new book, the The Wal-Mart Decade, makes the case that Wal-Mart is to today’s economy what GM was to the economy in the 1950s.
But not everyone is handing out kudos to Wal-Mart.
National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” took a look at the social and economic impact of America’s largest employer.
The series showed that the majority of “Main Street” and “town square” businesses tend to be impacted negatively by Wal-Mart’s sheer size. Offering customers more variety of the products they want at a cheaper price, Wal-Mart has left its mark on the small towns of America, often stepping on smaller mom and pop stores in it trek.
NPR also said Wal-Mart’s obsession with reducing costs in every part of operations can be taken too far. Economists said Wal-Mart is holding down inflation and gradually forcing down the wages and living standards of retail workers who don’t even work for Wal-Mart.
Although regulators have twice thwarted Wal-Mart’s effort to buy a bank, that doesn’t stop the superstore from offering affordable financial services to its customers. Wal-Mart charges a flat $12.95 to wire money, while Western Union charges $50 to wire $1,000 from Texas to Mexico. And, customers can purchase money orders for 46 cents, compared to the 90 cents charged by the United States Post Office.
Jodi Mathews is news writer for EthicsDaily.com.