Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Save the Previously-Despised Corporate Behemoth!

There was an Econtalk podcast sometime last year (I think; I can't remember which one, and it isn't obvious from the titles. If anyone knows which one it is, let me know.) in which Russell Roberts's interviewee suggested that there would come a day--perhaps in the distant future--when Wal-Mart would become an ailing company. For whatever reason, it will come upon hard times, and possibly near bankruptcy. At that time, customers, employees, and pundits will decry the loss of an American tradition.

It happened for Sears (once the bane of local general stores with its convenient catalog, it grew weaker and weaker from the 1980s onward, and merged with Kmart in 2005). That day hasn't come yet for Wal-Mart, but this is almost as good. Remember when people used to get upset about Starbucks moving into their neighborhood? There was a South Park episode about it (Warning: for anyone who watches that video, it's a normal, hilarious South Park episode, which means it's not work-safe). Starbucks announced a little while back that they were closing 200 stores due to over-expansion and the weak economy. As a result, local "Save Our Starbucks" campaigns are starting in order to keep their local stores from closing.

What people really fear, I think, is change. Once things have already changed, this becomes the new status quo, and people don't fear it any more. They may even appreciate the benefits of what they previously feared. I suspect people would have a similar reaction if Wal-Marts started shutting down.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, my colleague Art Carden has a related op-ed on Wal-Mart's efforts to open an experimental superstore in Memphis.

UPDATE: Russell Roberts has kindly provided the podcast to which I refer at the beginning of this entry. The discussion (with Don Boudreaux) of Wal-Mart comes around the 57 minute mark. Don Boudreaux said:
"...I'm pretty sure that, if we don't live to see it, our children will live to see it: Wal-Mart will one day go bankrupt, and there will be, uh, commentary about how sad it is, about how, uh, the changes in this new economy are destroying a venerable American institution....What is wrong with the American economy when Wal-Mart is going bankrupt?"
On the other hand, here's an interesting contrast: I hear a lot of people express a total lack of sympathy with the big three "American" automobile manufacturers, saying they deserve all the trouble they're having due to their lack of foresight. I wonder what accounts for the difference.