When a friend of mine informed me that he would no longer shop at Wal-Mart because he believed the store was guilty of stocking books with only one political point of view, my immediate reaction was to support his decision. But after a few hours of mulling over his position and trying to confirm the allegation, I realized that this is not such a simple black and white issue.
My search came up with only a few instances of Wal-Mart banning anything. One was a book by Jon Stewart, but only because of what they deemed to be an offensive picture on its cover. Another was an accusation that Wal-Mart had banned Christmas.
“A Catholic advocacy group has launched a national boycott against Wal-Mart, claiming the world’s number one retailer has in effect ‘banned’ Christmas, while promoting other seasonal holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But Wal-Mart tells WorldNetDaily it has ‘absolutely not’ banned Christmas, but is just trying to serve all our customers for the holiday season.’” (source: WorldNetDaily.com)
There was also an article about how Wal-Mart stopped carrying magazines such as Hustler and others due to customer complaints but I could not find anything about limiting its stock of books based on politics.
So, I went to the Wal-Mart website. I was surprised to find many titles from both the Right and the Left, including Nancy Pelosi’s, Know Your Power, and Barack Obama’s, A Change We Can Believe In. This is not to imply that store managers who may choose not to stock a narrower selection of books based on their geographical demographics and local market do not exist. The corollary question is: how do we react to retailers who limit our choice of reading materials?
In a free and open market, retailers are the sole arbiters of what is placed on the shelves of their stores. Customers are the sole arbiters of what and where they choose to buy. For instance, a few years ago, I chose to cancel my subscription to a particular local newspaper because I objected to their mindless editorials and lack of journalistic integrity. At that time, there was not much in the way of competition for the newspaper but I felt that TV news and rumors were about as satisfying and valid as what I had been reading. The commercial book market is quite different. There are so many outlets for books, both in stores and online, that I do not feel deprived of options by one or even several retailer’s stock choices.
I am well aware that the Wal-Mart business model is considered by many to be destructive to Main Street, USA. Because they deal in enormous volume, they can cut prices far below those of traditional mom and pop retail stores. The trend for the past few decades has been moving toward big box stores for low-end customers and boutique shops that cater to the more affluent. We can nostalgically pine for the old days of butcher shops and haberdashers but the hard reality is that blue-collar working folks are going to spend their limited funds where they can get the best value. I should at this point acknowledge that my wife and I shop regularly at Wal-Mart, primarily because we live on my retirement and her teacher’s salary. We would very much prefer to patronize local vendors but the money we save shopping cheap allows us to donate to our favorite charities. Such is the dilemma many folks like us face.
There is one more consideration that I thought was worth mentioning. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Wal-Mart is guilty of selling only books that adhere to their owner’s political views. Would or should we consider a retailer who values profit over their political convictions to be a better citizen? Can we disagree with an individual’s point of view and still give him our business? If you still shop at a local boutique shop, do you know the proprietor’s politics? Should that matter?
I never thought I would ever be in a position to defend Wal-Mart and I hope this does not come off as an apology for the corporation. However, they are part of the mix of our modern system of commerce. Though we may not like them very much, they do fit the model of American Capitalism, which is to win customers through competition in an open market. I would not fault anyone who, after considering all of the above, chooses to boycott Wal-Mart. Neither would I fault anyone who continues to shop there. How we allow our political views to affect our buying behavior is a decision each of us needs to make without recrimination or condescension from others.
This post was submitted by David Rood.