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  • Jennifer Marks

Bentonville blues

It's often said there's no such thing as bad publicity. But if you were watching the news go by from the vantage point of Wal-Mart's headquarters lately, you might not agree.

Recent weeks have brought a steady rain of national coverage about the world's most powerful retail company, much of it discomfiting from a Bentonvillean point of view.

Business Week in October devoted its cover to the subject: "Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?"

INC. Magazine weighed in last month with a 9-page examination of the retailer titled: "Running the Gauntlet at Wal-Mart."

Fast Company followed suit on its December cover with "The Wal-Mart You Don't Know (Why low prices have a high cost)."

The cover The New York Times' Week in Review section asked on Dec. 7: "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?"

Then Time magazine on Dec. 8 posed a question of its own: "Will Wal-Mart Steal Christmas?"

Surprisingly, this rash of cold-eyed appraisal from the national press did not center on the recent 21-state sweep of Wal-Mart stores that found illegal workers toiling for a janitorial service contracted by the retailer. That case went to the grand jury just last week. Nor did the stories give much notice, if any, to the pending case in which workers charge Wal-Mart made them work overtime without pay.

No, the recent spate of articles largely concentrates on the deleterious impact Wal-Mart ultimately has on the vendors that do business with it, its role as force in driving manufacturers off-shore and the ultimate the affect the process has wrought on the American workforce.

Wal-Mart is properly lauded for demanding greater efficiency, boosting productivity and holding down the national inflation rate.

However, the word "Darwinian" crops up a lot. So do references to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, the early 20th century grocery behemoth whose competitive invincibility prompted the so-called anti-chain store act, The Robinson-Patman Act of 1936.

None of the pieces suggest that Wal-Mart should be subjected to anti-trust scrutiny, nor hint that any action of the sort is likely. In fact, many point out that economists' notions of what constitutes predatory competition have altered greatly in the past half century.

But each piece raises the question of whether it might not be time to revise that point of view.

National publications at various times have offered less than flattering views of Wal-Mart's world, most often in terms of its impact on local communities. What makes the recent set of reports so noteworthy — aside from their near simultaneous publication — is the fact that they question Wal-Mart's impact on the health of the nation as a whole.

That's worth raising an eyebrow over. No doubt, Bentonville has duly taken note.

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