Wal-Mart has become so big and so pervasive that it effectively sets prices for everyone who sells to it, and everyone who competes against it. It has lowered prices for American workers — even those who don’t shop at Wal-Mart — even as it has done much to destroy the American labor movement and to encourage the offshoring of American jobs. It has changed how goods are shipped, packaged and produced. It has, at different times, encouraged devastating environmental practices and admirable ones. Any accounting of Wal-Mart’s effect on workers has to go far beyond a simple look at the wages they themselves pay to their direct workforce. See, for instance, this Wall Street Journal article on what happened in Thailand after Wal-Mart demanded higher standards from its shrimp suppliers.
Back in 2006 and 2007, I spent quite a bit of time reporting on the Wal-Martization of the economy, and I never came across an accounting I found sufficient. Whether Wal-Mart has been, on net, “good” or “bad” is a complicated question to frame and a devilishly tough one to answer. Soon, I’m sure, the question will be whether Amazon.com has been good or bad. I wish I had a definitive answer. All I’m certain of is that Wal-Mart has been — and Amazon.com will be — economically transformative.