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The United States of Wal- Mart by John Dicker

Taking over the World

On November 13th, Robert Greenwald's film The High Cost of Low Price will premiere in wide release on 3000 screens. This film about Wal-Mart's beleaguering effect on communities has been seducing people via the Internet to act as "field producers" and organize screenings and parties based on the film's intent.

Who is likely to act as a field producer? My guess is someone who enjoys John Dicker's book The United States of Wal- Mart. This book describes itself as an "inquiry" into the success of Wal-Mart but its style is clearly meant to incite anger. Dicker's verbiage such as "wal-crap" "wal-flak" and the way he talks to himself in the book a la "Gun shops, oh right, Wal-Mart is rocking that racket too, so yeah…" indicate that he is passively/aggressively demanding social change.

Tourettes aside, this book is chock full of statistics one can't ignore. While Greenwald's film will excel at telling personal stories, Dicker's book will astound with its jaw-dropping numbers. Among these are the behemoth's 288 billion in annual sales. "If Wal-Mart was a nation," Dicker writes, "its GDP would be larger than eighty percent of the world's countries. " Dicker also claims that every 38 hours Wal-Mart unveils another 200 thousand square foot supercenter. Thirteen new lawsuits are filed against it each day. Its 2003 turnover rate was 43 percent. In 2004, a full time worker averaged $9.64 an hour for a 32-hour week commitment. A clerk working at Wal-Mart will hear approximately 475 blips from her scanner per hour, These scans will then appear within the hour at the company's headquarters via its 460 terabyte computer system. This computer system, according to the New York Times, carries more data than the entire Internet.

Once you have recovered from the onslaught of stymieing statistics, Dicker provides a short biography of Sam Walton's path to success. Were it not for Walton's wife Helen, Dicker says, Wal-Mart might not have become such an 800-pound gorilla. (Helen refused to live in a town of more than 10,000 people, thus requiring Sam to capitalize on the needs of the rural consumer.) Dicker also shows how Wal-Mart controls what people eat through its grocer practices, what people read via its censorship and marketing practices, and what people earn from its corporate tax practices.

With historical research in hand, Dicker uses A & P as an example of another chain that practiced its monopoly powers more humanely. He recognizes that Wal-Mart is not going to go away: that people in rural areas are not going to go out of their way to pay more for organic or drive further simply to patronize a mom and pop store. He hopes that Wal-Mart will recognize that it needs to be a benevolent despot and make itself accountable wage and ethics wise.

Dicker writes for Salon, The Nation and the Colorado Springs Independent. Anyone willing to write the way he does in Colorado Springs is clearly a David among Goliaths. In one of his pieces on shooting ranges, Dicker used the phrase: "her smile could launch a thousand mini-vans." With wit like this, Dicker clearly had me at hello.

The United States of Wal- Mart by John Dicker
Tarcher/Penguin (June 16, 2005)
Paperback/$12.95
ISBN 1-58542-422-6
243 pages