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Gary Younge
When Wal-Mart comes to town

It's a summer noon in Alabama and those residents of Pell City who brave the outdoors cling to the shade like a life-raft. Because of the heat and humidity they hug the contours of the downtown dollar stores, walking as slowly as a southern drawl. Pell City isn't a city, strictly speaking. It's a small town, 25 miles from Birmingham, where yellow ribbons adorn most available street furniture and American flags hang from porches waiting for a breeze. It's the kind of place those in the urban centres of the west and east coasts look upon with disdain or, at best, a nonchalant disregard. "The America I live in is the America of the cities," said the New York-based essayist and novelist Susan Sontag. "The rest is just drive through."

But Pell City is just the kind of place the late Sam Walton, the founder of the world's largest company, Wal-Mart, loved to stop and set up his stores. In his autobiography, Made in America, he described the ideal location for a Wal-Mart store as "a little one-horse town which everybody else was ignoring". A place "where folks work hard for their money and where we all know that everyone puts on their trousers one leg at a time".

So when a new Wal-Mart opened up in Pell City on July 16 - one of 15 to open last month alone - it did so with full civic honours. The Pell City High School choir sang the national anthem, Mayor Guin Robinson cut the ribbons and everyone from the Disabled American Veterans to the Saint Clair children's advocacy centre and 400 onlookers were there to greet it.

It is early days yet, but if there is angst in town about the threat to local businesses and the prospect of making Pell City look just like everywhere else in America it is not obvious. The owner of the World of Music shop downtown says she is not in the least worried. The deputy editor of the local newspaper says everyone's "real excited". Indeed, if anything, it is the very fact that Pell City will start to look like everywhere else that local residents like. "Before we had to go to Talladega or Sycaluga," said Sarah Bently, steering her trolley towards her car. "Now we've got what they've got."

As the largest employer in 21 states with more people in uniform than the US army, Wal-Mart, which owns Asda, is indeed a name to be reckoned with. It is the biggest seller of DVDs, toys, guns, diamonds, CDs, dog food, detergent, socks, bedding and toothpaste in America and the biggest customer for Disney, Kraft, Proctor and Gamble, Revlon, Gillette and Campbell's soup. It has America's biggest private satellite communications network and a computer network to rival the Pentagon's.

Every week an average of 100 million customers - roughly the combined populations of Scandinavia, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Greece - pass through its doors. Last year, it notched up $244bn (£152bn) in sales. In short, in a nation where few things in the corporate world are small, Wal-Mart is a giant.

This gives the company enormous economic leverage on several fronts. From the outset Walton's strategy was based on the idea that he could make more money selling huge quantities for minimal profit than he could selling a few things at a bigger mark-up. The company uses its buying power to squeeze the very lowest price from suppliers.

Almost 500 companies have set up satellite offices near its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Bentonville enjoys two flights a day from New York; Little Rock, the state's capital, with a population nine times as large, has none. When Wal-Mart executives invited a select few shareholders to stay on after an annual meeting for a canoe trip and barbecue, American Airlines laid on two extra flights at the company's request.

Although it is immensely wealthy, Wal-Mart's guiding philosophy is corporate frugality. Ostentation is frowned upon. One negotiator, who spent time at the Bentonville base, described it as "a big concrete block with shabby cubicles". "Not even the furniture in the conference room matched," he said.

It is also doggedly anti-union. Unions have made only one successful effort at organising within Wal-Mart in the US - in a butcher's department in a store in Texas. Two weeks later, the company disbanded the department. When two managers dialled a company hotline to report that union literature was being distributed, the company's labour relations specialists were flown in on a company jet that very afternoon.

"If you are an admirer of capitalism, they are the epitome of it," Carl Steidtmann, an economist with PricewaterhouseCoopers who studies retailing, told the New York Times. "They are the prime example for the good and bad."

Despite Pell City's Wal-Mart being a new store, there is little in the way of signposting. But ask anyone and they will tell you where it is. When you arrive, Danny hands you a trolley and Betty (their name badges are prominently displayed) is there to greet you. "Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart," she says with a smile. Inside the vast 186,200sq ft of wide aisles and stacked shelves offering everything from nappies to guns, there is a personal business centre, a portrait studio, a family hair salon, optician and McDonald's. When you leave, Linda is there to tell you to: "Have a good day."

This is the kind of homely, all-inclusive southern welcome Wal-Mart prides itself on. Its values, beyond making huge amounts of money, are similar to those of patriotic middle America. At the height of the Iraq war, on the internal Wal-Mart television network, the usual litany of special offers was interrupted twice a day for live briefings from the White House and Pentagon.

As such, Wal-Mart is not just an economic colossus, but a cultural broker too. When Wal-Mart decided to ban discrimination against lesbian and gay employees, shortly after the supreme court ruling which struck down anti-gay sodomy laws, it prompted front-page assertions of a new national trend of greater tolerance. When a Montgomery-based women's group wanted to reach out to the Hispanic community they decided the best place to reach people was the local Wal-Mart.

In many small towns, Wal-Mart occupies not just vast areas of retail space but prime social and cultural space too. And it has shown itself determined not only use its might to secure the lowest prices, but to enforce its conservative ethos. It vets the magazines, DVDs, CDs and videos it stocks and refuses to sell anything that does not conform to its own standards with regard to profanity, sexual imagery or anything else that offends its version of family values.

In May, Wal-Mart dropped three lad magazines, Maxim, FHM and Stuff, on the grounds that the words were too racy. In June, Wal-Mart decided to partly obscure the covers of Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Marie-Claire over what they call "customer concerns". Last year it refused to stock an issue of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit special because it took exception to one photograph.

The process by which Wal-Mart comes to these conclusions is not entirely clear, though Wal-Mart says it is the result of "listening to our customers and associates". "They write to us or contact us and tell us what they think and we listen," a spokeswoman says. "A number of them said they were uncomfortable with these products."

But how they filter and prioritise these concerns appears to be arbitrary. Asked what in particular made customers uncomfortable or how many had complained, the spokeswoman could not say.

The more pernicious effect is that of self-censorship. Many magazine publishers have taken to showing the stores their content before the issues come out. "If you don't let them know in advance they will delist the title and never carry it again," says the former circulation editor of Vibe magazine, Dana Sacher. Media industry insiders say many actually allow Wal-Mart to help oversee the editing process.

Often record companies produce special versions of particular records in order to make them fit in with Wal-Mart's strictures. Nefarious political ramifications aside, the result can be hilarious. Take the Fugees' album The Score, an intelligent collection with a strong message against gun violence and a strong female voice in Lauryn Hill. It also contains a fair number of expletives, common in youth culture, including "shit", "fuck", "nigger" and the occasional "bitch". You wouldn't put it on at a family barbecue but it would be unlikely to cause offence in a gathering of people aged between 15 and 45. At the Wal-Mart in Pell City, you will find it just a hop and a skip away from the gun counter.

Slip it into your CD player, however, and you discover some of it is missing. All of the swear words have been dubbed out, leaving a gap. For the most part the omissions are irritating intrusions on good music. At times, however, it is downright absurd.

In between The Beast and Fu-Gee-La, for example, there is a short piece of dialogue involving two pushy young men who get into a row with a Chinese takeaway owner. In the original, their altercation escalates into a stream of expletives, with one of the young men saying: "Aw, fuck you the fuck up."

It is hardly the high point of the album, particularly if you have heard it more than once. The Wal-Mart version, however, is utterly incomprehensible, with that line rendered as "Aw, blank you the blank up" and another as: "Obviously the two of you are just blank, blank, blank."

If you don't like the Wal-Mart version you could, of course, try and order it on the internet. But in many parts of the US, if you are not online or don't fancy paying postage, this is probably the only version you will ever hear.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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