Thursday, October 07, 2004

Wal-Mart: Its Own Private Bentonville

Congratulations, Wal-Mart.

In your relentless quest to homogenize the earth, you've just won permission from the Mexican government to build a discount store less than one mile away from the ancient and awe-inspiring pyramids of Teotihuacan. From the sound of it, most locals didn't like the idea, but those locals lost.

Sometimes I wonder why Wal-Mart insists on expanding into areas where they meet a lot of local resistance. Are they simply oblivious to the concept that a megastore might negatively impact a certain community?

I wonder this, then I search for "bentonville arkansas," the rural Arkansas town that is (quite incredibly) Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters. Wal-Mart is a very centralized organization. Big decisions, like deciding to build a discount store near ancient pyramids or to get Wal-Mart involved in local LA politics in an effort to build a superstore, are made in Bentonville.

Having grown up in rural America, I'm hesitant to culturally character-assassinate a place simply by virtue of it being located in a rural area, but look at Bentonville. Look again. Roughly 20,000 souls live in Bentonville.

Wanna visit Bentonville? Here are the closest major cities:
Little Rock, Arkansas is 214 miles away.
Kansas City, Missouri is 213 miles away.
Tulsa, Oklahoma is close. It's only 115 miles away.

I haven't visited Bentonville, but my experience is that the size of a community in the United States is a significant factor in determining the level of cultural diversity in that community. The other factor is distance from a major metropolitan area. People that live and work in small communities near big US cities encounter cultural diversity on a level akin to those who live and work in the city proper. On both these metrics, Bentonville looks quite rural.

My experience is that cultural diversity is the best teacher of cultural sensitivity. Here's what I'm wondering: If Wal-Mart's headquarters were located in a larger or more cosmopolitan community, would the organization itself be more culturally sensitive?

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