Writing About Wal-Mart

When you write a book about Wal-Mart, the world's biggest and perhaps most powerful retailer, you'd better be sure to choose your title wisely. Anthony Bianco of Business Week confidently settled on "The Bully of Bentonville: How the High Cost of Wal-Mart's Everyday Low Prices is Hurting America." The word "bully" was a "carefully considered word," he said.

At 52, Bianco, originally of Rochester, Minn., but now a long-time Brooklyn resident, has been reporting on business at the magazine for over 25 years. In October of 2003, he wrote a cover story about Wal-Mart, carefully examining its impact on American society. The response was overwhelming. Overwhelmingly angry. One reader asked him "How dare you attack America, are you a traitor?" he said. A retired colonel told Bianco his article put U.S. troops overseas at risk.

"How many corporations inspire that kind of basic human feeling?" Bianco wondered at the time. Editors at Doubleday wondered as well and signed Bianco to write a book profiling the retailer. Previously, Bianco had written about Wall Street rainmaker Jeff Beck; the Reichmanns, a wealthy real estate family who built the World Financial Center; and a cultural history of three blocks of 42nd Street in New York City.

Writing about a company as big and influential as Wal-Mart had its challenges. Nearly everything about it is extreme. More than 138 million shoppers visit Wal-Mart's 5,300 stores per week resulting in revenues of more than $245 billion last year. To finish the book, Bianco worked early in the morning for over two years and eventually, he took an eight month leave of absence from work to finish it.

Bianco concluded that the retailer's aggressively reduced prices have kept inflation low throughout the entire United States and saved customers over $100 billion a year. Those benefits, however, came at cost.

"Wal-Mart comes into a community and has a depressing effect on wages. Wal-Mart has a net negative effect on employment in America," he explained. The low-cost leader has been accused of paying low wages and of offering little to no health care for its more than 1.4 million workers.

Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart in 1962 in the Ozark town of Bentonville, Ark. For Bianco, that fact was the key to understand Wal-Mart. "This company is a pure product of the Ozarks which in the time that the company was created, was one of the most poor, insulated and in some ways backwards parts of America," said Bianco. "The business model that Wal-Mart developed was calculated to both take advantage of the Ozarks and satisfy the Ozarks."

As the company expanded to become the world's largest retailer, it kept that small town mentality. It also thought that, like a bully, it could get its way wherever it went and at the same time, Bianco pointed out that CEO Lee Scott believed the company could "hide back in the hills of the Ozarks and be left alone."

Opening a new store every day and a half and yet somehow hiding from public view and intense scrutiny has proven nearly impossible for the company. But one thing that probably that won't be examined closely in Wal-Mart stores, Bianco's book. "I'd be absolutely shocked to see my book at Wal-Mart."