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Wal-Mart critics must address business realities

Wal-Mart has become a world-wide household name, and is one of the main stores for Miami University students in Oxford. An estimated 82 percent of American households made purchases at Wal-Mart in 2002 and the company earned $245 billion in revenues in the same year, making it the largest corporation in the world. Despite its remarkable success as a discount retailer, Wal-Mart has earned its fair share of criticism, particularly from a group called Wake Up Wal-Mart, which seeks to educate the public about Wal-Mart's business practices. While Wake Up Wal-Mart's message is certainly worth hearing, they are ineffective in changing the way Wal-Mart does business.

As the Wal-Mart Supercenter along U.S. Route 27 has become the principal shopping destination in Oxford for many Miami University college students, it is imperative for college students to be informed about the products they purchase there, and possess knowledge about the wages and benefits of the company's employees. The presence of Wake Up Wal-Mart has helped spur debate over the level of responsibility companies have toward their employees.

But even with this knowledge, it is not clear that consumers would be concerned enough to shop elsewhere. While it is noble to care about a company's business practices including overseas labor policies, wage rates, and benefit packages, it is unlikely that consumers - especially those with few retail alternatives to turn to - will value a company's policies over its prices.

One effect of Wal-Mart that critics often cite is the loss of locally owned and operated stores, which reflect their respective local communities and culture. However, it is unfair to pin this issue completely upon Wal-Mart's success at meeting consumers' needs. Localities can help ensure the survival of their individual character through well-considered zoning and development projects. Additionally, the presence of Wal-Mart provides some positive effects to small communities such as Oxford, offering a large number of jobs, as well as affordable consumer goods.

Wal-Mart's market success has resulted in a vast workforce. While the company has a responsibility to its shareholders to maximize its profits, it seems feasible that Wal-Mart could strike a balance and offer at least some measure of benefits. Other large corporations, such as Starbucks, provide health insurance for their employees, and in doing so attract better workers and corporate pride. In the end, however, it is up to the leadership of the corporation to decide if this is an argument worth hearing.