Monday, February 06, 2006

Sam Walton Lives In Hell

No Union Please, We're Wal-Mart
How the retail giant fought back when labor got a toehold in a Quebec store
Business Week

If Wal-Mart (WMT ) founder Sam Walton had been prone to nightmares, they probably would have looked a lot like the big-box store in Jonquière, Que., on this Friday evening in April, 2005. Empty shelves outnumber full ones by about 5 to 1.

Whole sections are closed, and the remaining merchandise consolidated in the center of the store. The entire contents of the baby department now fits into a single shopping cart left in the middle of an aisle. Some 20 workers shuffle about forlornly in their blue smocks, tending to a dozen customers searching for a final bargain among the dregs of what had been great abundance just a few weeks ago.

Here in Jonquière, the ubiquitous Mr. Smiley Face, mascot of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., seems downright deranged. "This is not what a Wal-Mart is supposed to look like," admits Marc St. Pierre, the store manager.

St. Pierre sent the store's greeters home long ago. In their place are two uniformed security guards who ignore the departing customers (Wal-Mart might welcome shoplifting as a form of accelerated retail euthanasia) to focus their attention on new arrivals. No doubt they would confiscate a gun if they saw one, but what they are really looking for is cameras. A skeleton crew of downcast employees wandering around a shambles of a store is not an image that top management in Bentonville, Ark., wants to see splashed across newspapers or magazines. A third security guard patrols the parking lot in a silver SUV, keeping an eye out for shutterbugs. Photographing the outside of the store is allowed, but try to bring a camera inside and a longhaired young man will politely but firmly bar your way.

I didn't come here to take pictures or to shop, but the hockey fan in me cannot resist a set of Montreal Canadiens salt and pepper shakers for $1.89. As I'm checking out, the elderly man in front of me says to the young woman running the register: "It's so sad to see your favorite store like this." She just shrugs.

On the way to my car, I encounter a man who appears to be in his 60s ambling toward the store's entrance. Is he here to buy something? "No," he replies, with a derisive snort. "I'm just here to look at the corpse."


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