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Wal-Mart: world's largest company

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Perhaps his greatest achievement was stamping his down-home values on the company's culture. He focused intensely on the consumer. He instituted a 10-foot rule where employees were supposed to greet customers whenever they got within 10 feet of them. Incredibly frugal, he passed on his parsimony to his employees. Even today, a decade after his passing, Wal-Mart's main offices in Bentonville look more like a really old mall than the headquarters of the world's largest company. Employees still take out their own trash.

When marketing Professor Jay Handelman at Alberta's University of Lethbridge began surveying Wal-Mart's impact on Canadians, he found customers didn't get what they wanted, they wanted what they got.

Before a Wal-Mart arrived in a community, for example, local consumers would tell Mr. Handelman that they wanted a new store to offer such things as special sales and a good location. But months after the arrival of Wal-Mart, which downplays sales in favor of everyday low prices, consumers had changed their preferences to everyday low prices. And location mattered hardly at all.

"Even though they're this huge multinational, they're able to portray themselves as the local community store," he says.

Some 100 million people a week buy into the "we're just like you" message. The company's annual sales rival the gross domestic product of Austria, the world's 22nd largest economy.

There are many ways to measure a company's size. Wal-Mart still trails General Electric and Microsoft in stock value. Nevertheless, the company displays unrivaled reach.

Besides being the world's largest retailer overall, it sells more groceries, toys, and jewelry than any other US chain.

But increasingly, the success and spread of Wal-Mart is generating a backlash of criticism. For example, while Wal-Mart didn't invent sprawl, it has taken it to its logical conclusion. It is moving from large discount stores to even larger super-centers where shoppers can buy briefs, bean sprouts, and big-screen TVs all under the same roof.

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