An all-too-common complaint about Newsweek is that, even though it’s edited by a man who is indisputably The Ultimate Thinking Person, the magazine too often relies on anecdotal evidence to make a catchy, but ultimately insipid, point. (See exhibits one, two, and three.) This week’s shamefully self-promotional issue attempts to assess the economic crisis dropping into a Wal-Mart, which has a “unique vantage point for tracking the recession.
By collecting anecdotal evidence from a highly mediagenic Wal-Mart manager in Denver named Karisa Sprague, reporter Daniel McGinn not only draws dubious conclusions about the how Americans are weathering the recession—which is, unfortunately, par for the course for a Newsweek article—but, more seriously, omits completely Wal-Mart’s layoffs and employee abuses, glorifying the discount giant. In sum, the piece reads like equal parts ode to Wal-Mart and flaccid analysis. Let’s delve in.
We begin with this lede and nut graf:
It’s 9:20 a.m. inside a Wal-Mart supercenter just north of Denver, and three-dozen employees are gathered in the back of the electronics department. Their boss, Karisa Sprague, steps to the center of the huddle. “GOOD MORNING, KARISA,” they thunder, then stamp their feet twice, clap their hands twice and shout: “TEAMWORK, HUH!” Sprague congratulates an employee named Crystal on her 10th anniversary with the company, and offers a quick pep talk. Then the employees stretch: touching toes, bending elbows, rotating wrists. It’s an odd daily ritual, but in a way it makes sense. While much of America’s retail landscape sits idle during this recession, these workers have a reason to warm up: even as Americans cut spending, business at Wal-Mart has never been better.
That gives Wal-Mart managers like Sprague a unique opportunity. For her, peering into shopping carts is like reading economic tea leaves, yielding anecdotal measures of consumer confidence and a front-line view of precisely how consumers are reining in expenses. Wal-Mart managers are often the first people to sense a recession is coming because they’ll notice an increase in items discarded near cash registers, a signal that anxious shoppers are reconsidering purchases. In her store, Sprague has seen another barometer of spending discipline: an increase in the number of shoppers carrying grocery lists, many of which get dropped along the aisles. “Yesterday I picked up four of them,” she says while walking toward the meat department.
So far, the takeaway is that Wal-Mart is a good place to work because they have these swell morale warmups that are good for the mind and body. And that the company is doing well amidst the recession because it is helping Americans stretch their hard-earned dollars.
What’s wrong with that? Well, it’s true that Wal-Mart’s business is thriving, but the mega-discounter’s employees are not. It’s not just that the company has laid off hundreds of employees, but, perhaps more importantly, the superstore has been long criticized for destroying local businesses, skimping on employee healthcare benefits, and cracking down on attempts at unionization. A few years ago, they had a massive dispute about overtime wages, and settled a $33 million suit for back pay. And a massive class action discrimination suit is moving forward which involves two million women who allege they were paid less than men.
In other words, Wal-Mart is a controversial company, whose employment practices are not all sunshine and roses. But the reporter seems to know that and attempts to rewrite history.
Sprague, 29, has managed this location in Westminster, Colo., a Denver suburb in the foothills of the Rockies, since it opened in late 2006. At 203,000 square feet—that’s more than four acres—this outlet is large even by Wal-Mart standards and employs 425 people. For Sprague, who worked her way up from assistant manager after joining Wal-Mart’s management-trainee program right out of college, this job has been a key stepping stone: her boss says within months she’s likely to become a market manager, overseeing a dozen stores. Until then, she’ll continue her 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. workdays at this location, trying to make good on Wal-Mart’s ad slogan: to help customers “Save Money” and “Live Better.”
This passage could seem like an innocent piece of background, but it also serves as a direct counter to the unspoken conventional wisdom about Wal-Mart, without any reference to court proceedings.
What’s more, the piece attempts to glean insight from shoppers’ habits.
Sprague admits she’s puzzled by some of the store’s hot recession sellers, like $5 white toilet seats. “It seems bizarre,” she says, “but I can’t keep them in stock.” Her best guess: unemployment and cocooning are leading people to put more wear on their home bathrooms, and they’re choosing her $5 seats over pricier ones at Home Depot.
TV sales are still strong, fueled in part by the conversion from analog to digital signals. While adult apparel has dropped sharply, moms are still buying kids’ clothing. As people seek cheap ways to entertain, lower-end patio sets and barbecue grills are selling well.
At the front of the store, Sprague passes a big display of Emergen-C, a vitamin powder. It’s been a hot seller all winter as customers try to stay healthy to avoid missing work. Shoppers are also asking pharmacists questions they once might have asked during a doctor’s visit, and making do with over-the-counter remedies instead of prescription drugs.
Which are, you know, quasi-interesting observations, but they all sit much higher in the story than this poor attempt at balance:
Even as Wal-Mart profits during the recession—revenue hit $401 billion last year—its executives admit to one worry: that when the economy strengthens, some of the upscale shoppers who’ve flocked to Wal-Mart to save money may return to their preferred stores. By some measures, it’s a reasonable fear: according to a survey in the May issue of Consumer Reports, Wal-Mart ranked 56th out of 59 grocery chains, due to poor service and lackluster perishables.
So, just to review, Wal-Marts are crappy stores that treat their employees badly and hurt local economies. But! The shopping carts of their customers are so! revealing! All I can really say is, come on… It’s certainly a cute concept to analyze what people are buying in the face of the recession. However, it’s dishonest to apply said cute concept to a company whose reputation is complex and controversial, and to omit it completely. This is crappy journalism, and is worth flushing down a porcelain throne, capped by a $5 toilet seat from Wal-Mart.Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.