Mirror reveals Wal-Mart's heart


About 18 years ago, during a talk I gave to a group of investors and students in central Missouri, a woman in the back of the auditorium raised her hand and asked: "Can Wal-Mart continue to grow, or should I sell its stock now because it has reached its peak?"

As I recall, I said something about how it might not always grow at the same percentage pace because it had become so large, but its game plan would likely keep it successful and growing for the foreseeable future.

Which qualifies me for the "Understatement of the Decade" award.

At the time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was limping along with a mere 1,198 stores. It began this year in the United States with 1,478 regular stores, 1,471 Supercenters, 538 Sam's Clubs and 64 Neighborhood Markets. Oh, and there's also an international division.

Wal-Mart has been pilloried for its hard-nosed business tactics, its effect on small community retailers and its labor practices. Amid such constant serious allegations, it nonetheless keeps growing.

The world's largest retailer reached a milestone of acceptance in this current season of Comedy Central's satirical South Park animated series with an episode in which a new "Wall-Mart" was opened where the town's Stark's Pond was previously located.

Townspeople became obsessed with its low, low prices, prompting closure of the local Jim's Drug Store. An attempt to boycott the new store failed miserably. To avert total collapse of their beloved town, the South Park characters made their way to the "heart of Wall-Mart" to try to kill it.

Alas, the heart of "Wall-Mart" turned out to be a mirror. Yes, we mesmerized shoppers are its heart. So long as consumers keep buying its merchandise, it keeps growing.

Though the real Wal-Mart faces increased competition and its strategy of international and urban center expansion must succeed to keep its momentum going, its stock receives a consensus "buy" rating from analysts who track it.

Basically, if you don't personally agree with its tactics, size or existence, don't buy its stock or merchandise. It appears that Wal-Mart will keep on rolling - with or without you.

Andrew Leckey is a Tribune Media Services columnist.

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