Move over, Enron. Wal-Mart is the new punching bag.
In the run-up to elections, America's top employer takes it on the chin for driving US jobs abroad and trampling workers at home. Should it share the blame?
The call went out from the White House soon after Sept. 11, and tickled the ears of the shopping-aisle rank and file. "Consume," was the message, "and show capitalism to be unbowed." Plenty of Americans went out and spent money, urged on by a new call as the holidays neared.
One big beneficiary: Wal-Mart.
That year, the discounter rang up $1.25 billion on the day after Thanksgiving, setting a single-day record for retail sales that it has since eclipsed, and adding to its list of superlatives. It's now the world's largest corporation in terms of sales - nearing $250 billion a year, comparable to the economy of Sweden. It is America's largest private employer. Its profit? Up a healthy 8.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003, the company reported Thursday.
But juggernauts invite scrutiny, and Wal-Mart has felt searing lights from many angles - most recently the very public forum of a US presidential campaign.
Outlining the travails of American workers, several Democratic candidates have been piling on a scorn that previously seemed reserved for Enron. And earlier this month, US Rep. George Miller (D) of California issued a report citing the "hidden price" to US taxpayers of what it calls the inadequate wages and benefits of many in Wal-Mart's workforce.
So does Wal-Mart deserve its punching-bag status?
"It's a complex issue," says economist Dale Neef, author of "Managing Corporate Reputation and Risk." "It's almost more about its size - and its effectiveness" at maximizing profit.
Beloved by many consumers, respected by some business strategists, vilified by labor groups and antiglobalization activists, Wal-Mart has become "the greatest business enigma of our time," says Richard Hastings, retail-sector analyst for Bernard Sands, an advisory firm in New York.
Consider the track record on which Wal-Mart's reputation is built.
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