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A Hard Bargain

Add Christy Yeoumans to the I-Hate-Wal-Mart club, a vast group whose members can be found seemingly everywhere - including the packed parking lot of the Wal-Mart in Hunt Valley on a recent morning.

"Wal-Mart is all that is horrible about corporate America," Yeoumans, 29, says, tossing a couple of Wal-Mart bags into her car. "It's the biggest, worst corporate store in America. It's funny you caught us here. We never shop here ... much."

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"I absolutely despise this place," her sister-in-law Rachel Yeoumans says, "but they do have good prices."

Indeed, Christy Yeoumans' sons, 6-year-old Joey and 2-year-old Gavin, were already wearing their brand-new $3.50 sandals just off the shelves of Wal-Mart. For a total of $40, she also picked up Liquid-Plumr and a grill brush.

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"And your bathing suit, Mom," Joey reminds her.

Welcome to the Wal-Mart Paradox, sighs Al Norman, a Greenfield, Mass., resident who has fought against unwanted development for more than a decade.

Most everyone he knows claims to hate no other company more. Yet every day he watches in frustration as no other company attracts more shoppers.

One of the original Wal-Mart haters - he blames the company and its big-box ilk for suburban sprawl - Norman is joined by growing numbers of people with a beef against the ubiquitous retailer:

Most recently, a gender-discrimination case filed by six female employees in 2001 was turned into a class action lawsuit to include 1.6 million former and current employees. The suit claims Wal-Mart paid women less and promoted them less often than their male counterparts - something that has helped keep the company on the National Organization for Women's "Merchant of Shame" list for two years running now.

More trouble

The suit is just the latest trouble to land on Wal-Mart's doorstep. Previously, the company has been charged with hiring illegal immigrants to clean its stores, locking workers in at night and denying them overtime pay and using subcontractors in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and China that operate sweatshops.

Add all this to the perennial Wal-Mart enemies: the anti-sprawl activists in communities from California to Florida who have squashed company efforts to open new Supercenters, for example, and groups such as the United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters that continue to condemn its anti-union policies.

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How bad has anti-Wal-Mart sentiment gotten? The company, which bills itself as a friendly, small-town neighbor, has even earned the enmity of that other symbol of national wholesomeness, Miss America.

Carolyn Sapp, Miss America 1992, is a spokeswoman for www.WalmartVersusWomen.com who spends much of her time educating people about how the world's largest company uses overseas sweatshops, stocks its shelves with mostly overseas products and "pays poverty wages ... all for greed."

Somehow, though, all this antipathy ends outside Wal-Mart's doors.

"I don't know how someone can read a headline that says Wal-Mart discriminates against women or that they lock up workers at night to finish inventory without paying them, and then that same person can find themselves at a Wal-Mart checkout line a few hours later," says Norman, who helps communities fight big-box expansion through his Web site, www.Sprawl-Bust ers.com. "It's a disconnect. We, as a nation, seem to have a great tolerance to shrug off negative stories if we can save a few cents on Kleenex."

Such talk causes pain in Bentonville, Ark., corporate home of the retailer. Just because Wal-Mart is huge does not mean it is lacking a heart, says a company spokesman.

"The criticism, to be very honest with you, hurts," Gus Whitcomb says. "This is a company that is trying to help. We save the nation's consumers more than $12 billion annually. This is a company trying to help middle-class and low-end families make a better living.

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"When people attack you, it hurts," the spokesman says. "When you're a big company, people take shots at you. We're just ending up on people's agenda as a convenient way to make a point. And often, their point just isn't valid."

Surely, any bruised feelings are likely eased by a look at the company's bottom line.

Despite the shots, Wal-Mart boasted sales of almost $256 billion last year. Its profit topped $9 billion. And it owns more than 5,000 stores worldwide, employs more than 1.2 million workers and 138 million customers walk through its doors weekly.

By the end of fiscal year 2005, the retailer is expected to add 40 to 45 discount stores and 230 to 240 Supercenters in the states. Internationally, it will open 130 to 140 stores. Some of those stores will be conversions or relocations of regular discount stores to Supercenters.

"This is like a classic case of dissonance," says Puneet Manchanda, associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "On the one hand, it's not the nicest, most pleasant shopping experience and it's a ruthless machine. On the other hand, you do find prices that are spectacularly low. People are dealing with these two conflicting experiences.

"It's the emotional pay-off of getting a great deal vs. supporting a big company that takes no prisoners," Manchanda says. "They're a company people love to hate, hate to love."

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Barbara Rosati, a Baltimore resident who lives near Lake Montebello, is also no fan, but admits to occasionally shopping at Wal-Mart or its less controversial rival Target.

"I hate Wal-Mart," says Rosati, who chose to buy a curtain rod at a Towson Target recently instead of Wal-Mart. "Everything in America is over-sized. If you want to go get some milk, I hate the whole idea of going through a big, huge store to get it. Everyone is looking for the best price, right? But the quality isn't good. You get what you pay for. I think in the long-run, Wal-Mart will self-destruct."

If Sam Walton were still around, one can picture the founder of Wal-Mart hopping into his pickup to tour his stores and talk to customers to understand the mystery behind such consumer ill will.

Wal-Mart expert Kenneth Stone, an economics professor at Iowa State University, says the answer is simple. Who can resist a bargain?

'Hip' to hate Wal-Mart

"It's hip to say you hate Wal-Mart, but I don't really think there is as much hate as you think," says Stone, whose past research has shown that in communities with fewer than a thousand residents, the addition of a Wal-Mart cuts into the profits of local businesses by 50 percent.

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"There are people I know who say I've never set foot in a Wal-Mart," Stone says. "They're mostly upper to middle-income. Wal-Mart's target is the under-$35,000 household. To those people, Wal-Mart is their salvation to balancing their budget."

Still, he says, even upper-income Americans, those who presumably could afford to act on their anti-Wal-Mart feelings, find themselves shopping there.

"If you look at their parking lots across the country, Wal-Mart lots are almost always full," he says, "and you see plenty of $70,000 SUVs parked there, too."

But is the bad publicity starting to take its toll?

Early last week, Wal-Mart executives told shareholders that weather-related issues and a weak Father's Day contributed to June sales rising just 2 percent to 4 percent higher than previous estimates of a 4 percent to 8 percent increase. Its stock price has been roughly flat since 1999. And after hitting a $61 high in March this year, Wal-Mart's stock price has dropped sharply since then, hovering in the low $50s-per-share.

Stone says it's unlikely the controversies are affecting the shopping behemoth. If anything, the decrease in sales could be explained by the fact that as Wal-Mart keeps opening more Supercenters, it is merely cannibalizing its existing stores.

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"As big as they are and moving as fast as they are, they are going to be a viable company for a long time," Stone predicts.

But Wal-Mart opponents are holding out hope. They see signs that the company is responding to its critics.

Since the onslaught of bad press, Wal-Mart's yellow, smiley-faced mascot, the one always slashing low prices, isn't the sole star of its commercials. Several TV ads now show a kinder, gentler side of the retail king, featuring such heart-warming stories as the one showing how the Wal-Mart health plan helped save an employee's son from a liver disease.

And last month in Florida, Wal-Mart bowed to protesting residents and changed a year-long plan to build a Supercenter - decreasing the size of the project, adding more conservation buffers and accepting a number of conditions that addressed traffic and other concerns. Despite the concessions, the project was vetoed.

Corporation-wide, Wal-Mart unveiled a diversity initiative last year, which includes an office that is responsible for a corporate goal of promoting qualified minorities and women. Additionally, it has enacted measures to make sure hourly workers are protected: new scheduling software to ensure that teenagers aren't working more hours than the law allows, cash registers that alert cashiers to their meal break, shutting down if they ignore the alert, and a new policy to notify employees any time managers adjust the amount of time put on their time records.

For those who continue to fight the retailer, the new measures are a start.

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"I think the world's largest corporation has received a black eye and hopefully they don't want to be viewed that way," says Olga Vives, a vice president with NOW.

But don't expect to see her at the neighborhood Wal-Mart anytime soon. It's been more than three years since Vives has set foot inside a Wal-Mart. It's her small way, Vives says, of snubbing the corporate giant.

"I consider them predators," Vives says.

As an alternative, the Alexandria resident and her family visit the local Whole Foods and Giant supermarkets for their groceries. She shops at Target for toiletries, Kohl's for other household needs, and Macy's and various department stores for clothes.

Never mind Wal-Mart's "always low prices."

"They have no shame," Vives says. "I am not going to be a consumer of Wal-Mart."


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