The Wal-Mart Catechism

A new book on the discount chain’s down-home early days doesn’t tell us much about its status as the world’s largest — and most controversial — retailer.
Publish date:
Social count:
A new book on the discount chain’s down-home early days doesn’t tell us much about its status as the world’s largest — and most controversial — retailer.

Last November, voters in Ventura, Calif., faced a dilemma common to many midsized communities: What, if anything, can be done about Wal-Mart?

There seemed to be no legal way to stop the Arkansas-based behemoth from opening a store in the area, so a coalition of activists and grocery store unions crafted a ballot measure to restrict the size of the store and the types of goods it could sell. Backers argued that the proposal would prevent a Wal-Mart “superstore” from cannibalizing local businesses and undercutting high-wage union jobs at area grocery chains.

As the Wal-Mart debate raged — in furious editorials, scathing campaign posters and bristling public statements — one thing became clear: Not even those opposed to the poorly written ballot measure seemed enthusiastic about the corporate juggernaut rolling into town. On Election Day the measure failed by a healthy margin, opening the door for a full-sized Wal-Mart in Ventura.

In the aftermath of the bitter campaign, however, the company found few friends in public. Many supporters admitted the store was likely to be an eyesore and cause traffic gridlock. Even some pro-business City Council members who had attacked the “populist” ballot measure announced that they wouldn’t patronize the superstore but would instead shop at the mom-and-pops that litter Ventura’s quaint downtown strip — the same stores that may be driven out of business after a Wal-Mart opens.

At first glance, professor Bethany Moreton’s weighty study, To Serve God and Wal-Mart,  appears to be another in a long line of academic diatribes (American Fascists and Fall of the Evangelical Nation come to mind) that belittle the connection of Christian fundamentalism with unbridled capitalism. Despite its title, Moreton’s book — refreshingly — does not dwell negatively on the allegedly world-conquering power of religion and free enterprise. But in her insistence on presenting a neutral historical study that focuses on the early years of Wal-Mart, she has created a painstakingly researched treatise with little overarching perspective.

For all the salient information she uncovers in interviewing employees, combing the archives of Wal-Mart World (the company’s in-house periodical) for details and documenting Bible Belt sensibilities and eccentricities, Moreton fails to take the next logical step and combine the details she’s unearthed in a central theme. Her book therefore raises a simple question: How, exactly, are we supposed to feel about rise of this “Christian” mega-corporation? Is anger, disappointment or indifference the right reaction?

Wal-Mart Background
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton would’ve liked you to believe that his initial storefront, opened in 1962 in Rogers, Ark., began with humble intentions. In reality, the grand opening of “Wal-Mart Discount City” was the first in a series of calculated gambles aimed at expanding his department store chain and monopolizing the “basic goods” industry.

Click here to read more Miller-McCune book reviews.

Click here to read more Miller-McCune book reviews.

Shrewdly, Walton avoided competing with Kmart and other discount chains located in cities by targeting smaller towns near military installations, state institutions and other administrative centers. The first 50, mostly Southern towns that Wal-Mart settled in during the late 1960s and early ’70s had a median population of just 9,000, but the business thrived by aggressively positioning itself as a super-sized version of the rural mom-and-pop stores that it eventually supplanted.

To cultivate and maintain its folksy image, Wal-Mart used careful central planning, community-building efforts and savvy promotional techniques. Executives and managers modeled the demeanor of Sam Walton, clothing the corporation’s sometimes-ruthless free-market practices in an imagined rugged, homogenous America of yesteryear that was part Davy Crockett and part Leave It To Beaver, with church potluck dinners thrown in for good measure.

Although the company reveled in nostalgia, it seemed “Christian” only in the sense that it tried to mirror the prevailing culture of the South. The founder’s pastor summed up the company’s Christian underpinnings neatly: “When it’s not bird-hunting season and he’s in south Texas, every Sunday Sam Walton is in church.” In essence, Walton intended Wal-Mart to be a homegrown, values-centered community filled with eager managers and employees whom you might otherwise run into at Sunday service.

In this insulated, country music-playing theme park, many customers — often women looking for part-time jobs — became employees who assumed roles that actively promoted the Wal-Mart vision of Christian populism. Central to this vision were a stringent adherence to professionalism and an unwavering commitment to having a good attitude. Because Wal-Mart was often the largest institution in rural Southern communities, customers were often friends and neighbors. It was natural that early on the company developed a reputation for genuinely friendly employee service — something that Walton constantly emphasized.

Despite the founder’s protests to the contrary, it was actually Wal-Mart’s innovative organizational techniques that allowed it to dominate the retail sector. Unlike the urban department stores that lured customers with luxurious display, Wal-Mart trailblazed the idea of corporate populism, casting exorbitant consumption of cheap items as — in the words of the author — “procuring humble products ‘for the family.’”

The company’s sanitized, no-frills warehouse design, deep discounts and glaring florescent lights were designed to send one message: Shopping here is the most sensible option. Conspicuous consumption became acceptable for the middle and working classes, as long as they bought cheaply and in bulk.

To provide the deep discounts that are Wal-Mart’s calling card, the company used its scale to negotiate low prices from manufacturers, and also looked to scrimp in other ways, especially on pay and benefits. Wal-Mart executives handed out token “management” positions to even low-level employees and used legions of “part-time” workers. While Walton and his executives felt that a supervisory title would boost employee morale, the titles also served a more practical purpose — the company could avoid shelling out overtime pay. And part-time workers were not, under the federal laws then in effect, eligible for benefits.

Indeed, it’s more than ironic that a company relying almost entirely on low-level “managers” and the part-time labor of women could, to paraphrase Moreton, enjoy an almost unshakeable reputation as a family business that instilled widespread loyalty, even devotion, in these workers.

If Wal-Mart’s early employees ever grumbled loudly, it’s not evident in Moreton’s book. She seems to have combed the archives of Wal-Mart World to find endless examples of employees who extolled the virtues of the company’s Christian service ethos. “A fellowship hour like this makes you realize that Wal-Mart is the only place to work,” gushed a staff member of one Oklahoma store, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Southern employees.

Values Employees
Why do these early employees appear to be so loyal? The author argues that commonly held values, including Bible Belt evangelicalism, along with an absence of other unifying institutions in these small towns transformed Wal-Mart from a mere corporation into a community center where employees and customers could gather, swap stories and, of course, shop. Christianity was able to provide the moral compass that guided the economic engine of free-market capitalism.

This unwieldy but successful fusion of values and commerce is rife with contradictions and complexities that have become ever more apparent in the current post-“values voters” era. The Wal-Mart superstore is now as polarizing as it once was unifying. As the largest cultural symbol to be inextricably wed to red-state evangelicalism, it has borne the brunt of the (sometimes excessive) criticism that similar competitors like Ikea and Target have largely avoided.

Certainly the company has grown far too large to limit its corporate-populism to only the “real America” of the rural South. But how can it possibly recraft its image to appeal to the nation’s bluer regions?

The increasingly ambivalent response to Wal-Mart’s constant expansion in America and around the world could have been the focal point of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, but Moreton’s lips are frustratingly sealed. Content to relay the history and culture that accounted for the company’s dramatic ascent to corporate dominance, she leaves much of the questioning to others. Any emergent theme seems to be set hopelessly adrift in all the (fascinating) details Moreton dredges up from Sam Walton’s personal writings and the bottomless archive of Wal-Mart World. Without any apparent central argument, the book reads as a well-documented, objective, historical narrative that seems slightly inadequate to the global debate that swirls around the world’s largest retailer.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.