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Happy Birthday, Walmart

Yes, I know, Target, Kohl’s and Kmart are also turning 50 this year.

But today is Walmart’s annual shareholders’ meeting and pep rally in Fayetteville (hosted by Justin Timberlake with appearances by Taylor Swift and Celine Dion), so let’s give the Boys from Bentonville their due.

While weeklong concerts there by Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and Carrie Underwood couldn’t quell investor ire over the Mexican bribery scandal, credit Sam Walton for building the world’s largest retail chain from a single discount store, which he opened in Rogers, Ark., in the summer of 1962.

In more recent years the company has been vilified for its labor practices, its glass ceiling, its bruising vendor terms, and its effect on domestic manufacturing and small-town businesses. And this week’s series of full-page newspaper ads which took advantage of Best Buy’s woes did little to soften its schoolyard bully rep. (”Did your local Best Buy just close? We have the top brands and low prices.”)

But as TWICE points out in a special report in next week’s issue, not even Walmart is immune to merchandising misjudgements, the weak economy and a soft CE market. Also belying its image as a disruptive force is a recent university study, reported by CNNMoney, showing that home prices actually rise when the discounter comes to town.

Walmart’s standard line that it makes life better by making products more affordable is certainly debatable, and at this morning’s meeting the majority Walton family won out and all board members were re-elected.

But I will always carry a decidedly un-reporter-like bias toward the chain, stemming from the days immediately following 9/11. Back then, when people left Manhattan and the air was still thick with the dust and smoke of the towers, I watched as a caravan of Sam’s Club tractor trailers packed with emergency essentials wended their way toward Ground Zero. And if for that alone, I bid you a Happy Birthday, Walmart.