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Wal-Mart: world's largest company

Chain's low-price, low-wage ascent is triumph of post-industrial economy

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The world's new No. 1 company boasts no factories or smokestacks. It has no signature product. Instead, Wal-Mart Stores has reached the top by selling other people's goods more cheaply than anyone else.

When the Arkansas-based corporation releases its 2001 fiscal year revenue figures today, it's expected to breeze by oil giant Exxon Mobil to become the world's largest corporation, with sales of $218 billion.

Wal-Mart's ascent signals many things: the power of ideas, the importance of corporate values, and the triumph of the post-industrial economy. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution took hold in the United States, a nonindustrial, service business has risen to the top of the corporate rankings.

But the epic transformation of a single five-and-dime into a world-beating corporation has its downside. It has sucked the life out of small-town business districts. Its low-price success is spawns low-pay jobs. Its spread has helped pave over America's geographical diversity with cookie-cutter stores that detractors find numbingly similar.

If the "Wal-Martization" of America - and increasingly, the world - stands for anything, it's this: Good ideas backed with hard work can reach unimaginable heights. But success often has unintended consequences.

These two faces of success follow Wal-Mart wherever it locates. Here in Rogers, Ark., they stare each other down and provide a preview into where the Wal-Mart phenomenon may lead America.

A sleepy, rural town when Sam Walton opened his first Wal-Mart here 40 years ago, Rogers now pulses like a boomtown. The region, including nearby Bentonville and Fayetteville, represents the sixth-fastest growing US metro area. Most locals seem to enjoy the heady times. But the more Wal-Mart grows, the louder its critics get. "It does have an effect on [what] I think [is] something more important than shopping," says Al Norman, head of Sprawl-Busters and one of the corporation's most vocal detractors. "Every little town starts to resemble every other town. And people who gather in these enormous warehouses frequently never see anyone familiar from visit to visit."


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