The Washington Post, January 15, 2013
Why wait on Washington when there’s Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer and the biggest private employer in the U.S. with 1.4 million workers here, said Tuesday that it is rolling out a three-part plan to help jumpstart the sluggish U.S. economy.
The plan includes hiring more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years, spending $50 billion to buy more American-made merchandise in the next 10 years and helping its part-time workers move into full-time positions.
The move comes as Wal-Mart tries to bolster its image amid widespread criticism. The company, which often is criticized for its low-paying jobs and buying habits in the U.S., recently has faced allegations that it made bribes in Mexico and calls for better safety oversight after a deadly fire at a Bangladesh factory that supplies its clothes. Wal-Mart said its initiatives are unrelated to those events, but rather are meant to highlight that companies don’t have to wait for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to fix the economy.
“We’ve developed a national paralysis that’s driven by all of us waiting for someone else to do something,” Bill Simon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart’s U.S. business, said Tuesday at an annual retail industry convention in New York. “The beauty of the private sector is that we don’t have to win an election, convince Congress or pass a bill to do what we think is right. We can simply move forward, doing what we know is right.”
Any changes that Wal-Mart makes to its hiring and buying practices garner lots of attention because of the company’s massive size. Indeed, with $444 billion in annual revenue, if Wal-Mart were a country, it would rank among the largest economies in the world. But critics say the changes amount to a drop in the bucket for the behemoth, and they question whether Wal-Mart’s initiatives will have a major impact on the U.S. economy.
But even with the additional $5 billion that Wal-Mart plans to spend each year — the breakdown of $50 billion over five years — the amount that the company will spend each year on buying goods in the U.S. will only account for 2 percent of its total spending in the country. In the fiscal year that ended in January 2012, Wal-Mart bought $238.8 billion in goods for its U.S. stores.
“They sound impressive when you first hear the numbers but when you begin to look at them, it’s a very tiny scale that doesn’t add up to much,” said Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a nonprofit national research organization.