There is certainly no shortage of commentary on how the unprecedented expansion of Wal-Mart has affected American society, both for good and ill.
There are those who lament Wal-Mart's treatment of its own workers which the New York Times describes as "authoritarian," and those critics who decry Wal-Mart's (and similar large retailers') policies as tantamount to encouraging modern slavery.
But the chain also has its supporters, who argue that Wal-Mart can offer community support, as well as low prices on staple commodities for consumers on public assistance.
But the proliferation of Wal-Mart's ubiquitous retail stores has affected the very brands that it sells, often in ways that are subtle but profound. Here are just a few:
- Potential for Quality Deterioration: For certain basic products, Wal-Mart has a "clear policy" that its prices must go down from year to year, rather than up. If a particular vendor does not keep its wholesale prices competitive with other suppliers, they risk having their brand removed from Wal-Mart's shelves in favor of a lower-priced competitor. Critics say that this eventually pressures all vendors to shift manufacturing jobs to China and other developing nations, where the cost of labor is less expensive. Over time, they argue, the quality of Wal-Mart's products must inevitably decline, rather than improve.
- Decreasing Brand Diversity: Any retailer only possesses a limited amount of visible shelf-space to display products in a category, such as baby diapers. Because of their packaging and size, baby diapers occupy a fair amount of the retailers' valuable "real estate." Therefore, a retailer must carefully choose which brands to carry. Wal-Mart, one of the nation's savviest retailers, chooses among the competing brands to determine shelf-space return on investment. Consequently, Wal-Mart chooses to devote 95% (or more) of its shelf space to Luvs, Pampers and Huggies, the three top sellers in that category. Per square foot, across all its stores, it simply may not make economic sense for Wal-Mart to even consider carrying any smaller, "alternative" brands such as Seventh Generation diapers which appeal to shoppers who want diapers free of bleach, latex or fragrances. Wal-Mart's customers therefore benefit from lower prices for Luvs, Huggies and Pampers, but are not presented with a diverse selection of alternatives. Over time, this trend can harm brand diversity, as Seventh Generation must rely upon niche market health food stores and online retailers to compete, thus creating a significant entry barrier for smaller brands.
- Weaker Intellectual Property protections: Perhaps desiring to sell cheaper, lower quality mass-market versions of popular designs, Wal-Mart has also advocated and lobbied very effectively for limiting intellectual property protections for budding designers. For example, in 1997, children's clothing maker Samara Brothers had sued Wal-Mart for "knocking off" its entire clothing line of high-end clothes. Wal-Mart didn't dispute the copying, but took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the designer's claims, a process which took years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Samara's clothing line was unprotectable as a matter of law because it couldn't satisfy stringent legal "distinctiveness" criteria. Wal-Mart won not only the case, it helped to set precedent in its favor whenever it chooses to copy other designers. The Samara case is still the prevailing law of the United States, which limits the availability of trade dress protection to product configurations. The commercial reality is that very few private parties have the resources to litigate such cases against Wal-Mart, all the way to the Supreme Court, and even fewer can win. In contrast, Wal-Mart possesses both the will and the resources to dedicate serious efforts to altering the legal landscape in its favor.