Monday, November 17, 2008

Walmart's CAN: Uncle Sam needs you!

Well, just when I thought that there was little more to say about Walmart, there comes an article in last week's Hartford Courant on the company's Customer Action Network, which in the state of Connecticut alone has enlisted thousands of residents in a "support group" to act as unpaid lobbyists for Wally.

The Can-Doers have their own official website, and from it we learn that the:

Customer Action Network is a program to keep customers informed about government issues that affect Wal-Mart and its ability to provide good value for your shopping dollar.

When government tries to limit your shopping choices, or interfere in Wal-Mart's ability to offer Everyday Low Prices, Customer Action Network members can help by expressing their opinion.

Ah, those terrible governments - especially ones in liberal-y states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, where elitist snobs (of which cohort I am a proud, if non-card-carrying member) try to do things link rein in sprawl, keep a watchful eye on the environment, and try to see that people make a living wage while not being treated like crap in the workplace).

Of course, all this good stuff comes at a cost, and the cost is that products might actually be a bit more costly than they would be otherwise.

Not that this is a good economy in which to make the argument that we should be willing to pay a tiny bit more for things like food and clothing. People are nervous now. Layoffs - huge layoffs - are rampant. Anyone who has a 401K is afraid to peek at it. And most folks probably don't even have a 401K to peek at.

No, now's not the time to do a wholesale trash on the retail wonders of Walmart.

Hell, come The Depression, I might be hitchhiking to the nearest Walmart to buy ramen noodles and toilet paper in bulk. Fortunately, come The Depression, I have enough clothing to survive a good long time, without having to replace anything other than undies, socks, and shoes. Although God knows I'm getting sick of that 10 year old parka, and I may have been too hasty in bringing that LL Bean barn coat - barely worn - over to St. Francis House so that someone who needs a fairly warm coat could have one. On the other hand, it would have been kind of stupid to keep a coat around that was a size too large, wasn't the color I had really wanted, and made me look like a refrigerator carton.)

According to The Courant article, those signing up for CAN membership - and what an odd echo of the Obama campaign theme that is - have done so "eagerly".

"I would stick up for Wal-Mart as strong as I can," said Ernest Kirschner, a frequent shopper. "I really think they've gotten an unfair shake."

That's just what the world's largest retailer wants to hear. Wal-Mart is turning to loyal customers such as Kirschner to become watchdogs, not just shoppers.

As watchdogs, CAN members will be sic'd on those who oppose things like the opening up of Walmart supercenter, a particularly hot-button issue in New England, where we tend to like our downtowns - and where opposition to Walmart expansion efforts has been especially fierce (and at least temporarily successful, in many cases).

Walmart's doing quite the recruitment job here:

As of Thursday, more than 61,000 New England residents have joined CAN, company spokesman Chris Buchanan said. Connecticut tops the list with 25,218 names.

And, by the way, you don't get much for joining. From the CAN site, we find that:

As a member of the Wal-Mart Customer Action Network, you will receive:

  • Free newsletters with shopping tips, consumer information and specials.
  • Important bulletins and e-mail alerts
  • Invitations to special in-store events and receptions
  • Information on important issues affecting us all and how you can make a difference.

Shopping tips?

Go to the nearest Walmart. Greet the greeter. Grab a cart. Load it up. Check out. Drive away happy.

Why does the idea of a "shopping tip" remind me of those Cool Whip ads of yore, when people asked "Sarah" in wonder how she made pudding in a cloud, which didn't appear to be anything more than dollop of Cool Whip plopped on  pudding. (Old family recipe, I guess.)

In any case....

Anti-Walmart activist Al Norman thinks the numbers of New Englanders who have actually signed up to man the barricades may be over-exaggerated.

"Here's a giant retailer doing community organizing instead of selling cheap underwear and bananas," Norman said. "A lot of people signed up for this group, thinking they were going to get information about the next sale."

Also worth noting: Walmart hired an outside group to do its CAN recruiting, possibly hoodwinking some folks into believing they were joining an independent outfit. Hmmmmm.

Then there's this from the New England CAN website. (We get our own because we're so special - and nasty - I guess.) I cawalmartn't actually read the fine print on this one, but I'm generally a pretty good guesser, and I'm guessing that the extra $250o is not on top of what Walmart is already claiming you save at Walmart . (This claim is the subject of some controversy, by the way. But there is supposedly a UMass study that finds that just having a Walmart in town saves everyone money because of price pressure. I wonder if the study also examines any negative impacts of race to the bottom pricing. ) Hmmmmm.

According to Walmart spokesman, Chris Buchanan, the CAN effort is really grassroots.

"It came about at the store level. Customers said they would like to be more involved with the company. That's where it sprung from. We're recruiting customers to join a coalition around issues affecting Wal-Mart."

Customers said they would like to me more involved with the company?

I'm trying to think of the last time I said I wanted to be more involved with a retail empire (other than buying a cap and pins from the Obama website). Hmmmm. (Nice to meet you, Mrs. Dubious.)

The group hasn't made any great headway in New England quite yet.

One of their biggest triumphs?

Wal-Mart's CAN newsletter credits members in Sturbridge, Mass., with helping to defeat a town ordinance that would have banned plastic grocery bags, a ban the newsletter describes as "not the best for Wal-Mart or the community at large."

Nice going, guys! We can sure use more of those initiatives to keep a kabillion flimsy plastic bags in circulation, especially when everybody else on the face of the planet is trying to find ways to reuse, recycle, and generally respect the environment.

CAN member Kirschner, for one, is happy to see Walmart come out swinging

"I think they're finally putting their boxing gloves on. ... They do need the community to fight for them."

Allons, citoyens! Aux barricades! Uncle Sam needs you!


Thanks to my cousin Mary Beth for sending me the link to the Courant article.

And am I obsessing on Walmart lately? Here's my post from 11/7.

1 comment:

K. said...

"When government tries to limit your shopping choices,"

This is a good one. Wal-Mart is in the business of limiting shopping choices, whether it be destroying local downtown commercial centers or cutting deals with rock bands like the Eagles or AC/DC to be the exclusive retailer for a new album.

Wal-Mart invaded hometown in South Texas some years back. The downtown now looks like something out of The Last Picture Show. I get the appeal: South Texas is not exactly wealthy and Wal-Mart's prices are irresistible. But they come with a cost, and -- like casinos -- they take money out of the locality and distribute it to shareholders. In the end, that's bad for the town.