I came to this book in search of solid reporting from within the company - afterall, the cover boasts that the author "penetrated Wal-Mart's wall of secrecy." Well, I am sorry to report that the author has done no such thing. Instead, what the reader gets is a rehash of some of what has already been written (if by him in many instances), with extended (and repetitive) stories on outside critics as well as some partners (suppliers) of the company in stories that are so long as to feel like filler. But he does not find any honest visionaries or even concerned doubters within the company to offer perspective, which I was hoping to find. Moreover (and far worse), there are huge gaps that the author entirely misses or indeed may have preferred to ignore.
Wal-Mart's business practices are well known: promising "everyday low prices" and convenience as its competitive advantages as a general merchandiser, the company relentlessly searches for cost-efficiencies in the form of squeezing suppliers, offering relatively low wages and little health care, and developing an unprecedented logistics operation that literally spans the globe with sweatshops in China, etc. That is about it and it explains the company's phenomenal expansion and the growth of its power.
Of course, the case of the critics is becoming equally well known: 1) workers need a "living wage" and better health coverage options; 2) suppliers need better treatment so that they do not ruin their brand when selling to WM; 3) local governments should not face so much pressure to grant tax breaks and other concessions to WM; 4) local businesses need some protection and nurturance to stay in business when WM comes to the community; 5) WM needs to learn to listen to the concerns of critics and act on them better.
Fishman covers these areas competently, if by reiterating stories that anyone who follows the issues should know, such as the way that Vlasic pickles was bankrupted by being forced to sell at a price too low to sustain itself. (This important example, which he broke in his original article for Fast Company is now repeated in just about every critical source I have read on the company.) As such, the substance of the book is really not much beyond what should appear in a long article, meaning that there really is no much new in this book - it is just a compilation of what we know, well written perhaps, but surprisingly thin.
I did get some detail on issues such as the environmental impact of WM's demand for Salmon on Chile or what economists are researching on the company. In addition, there is very useful original reporting on WM's foreign-factory inspection programs, which Fishman portrays as PR window-dressing and which I will use in my currect project. Nonetheless, I was often disappointed at the thinness of the reporting and the sparseness of ideas in the text.
However, what Fishman fails to cover - and which is already becoming well known - diminishes the value of the book. At the moment, Wal-Mart is facing a series of crises. Not only has it saturated the rural areas of its origins, but customers are beginning to tire of the low quality and shabby, pedestrain styles it offers. This is directly reflected in its declining stock price and profit margins. Finally, consumers are beginning to learn and disapprove the company's practices.
The remedies to this crisis are far from certain. First, WM must go into new georaphical areas, that is, into more urban environments. Unfortunately, it has proven rather inept at doing so because unions and political activism are strong in these areas, which translate into passionate resistence to the company in the form of economic empowerment, community control, decent treament of workers, etc. (I have witnessed this first hand as a reporter in the community of Inglewood, near LA, which mobilised a diverse coalition and beat the snot out of the company.) Second, the company hopes to appeal to higher-class consumers, who disdain its style while shopping there for low-margin generating necessities. These are precisely the well-educated consumers who oppose the company for all the reasons that critics are advancing: environmental impacts (traffic and pollution), the assault on traditional downtown areas, etc. Getting them onboard, let alone in, may not be possible.
Thus, to placate these critics, WM would have to do the unthinkable: pay more, invest more in the community, and refrain from certain forms of competitition. Alas, this would erode its competitive advantage, forcing the company to raise prices and hence undermine its core business model. Amazingly, Fishman barely acknowledges this dilemma and offers no comprehensive analysis on it. This is not great reporting if you ask me.
So I would only tepidly recommend this book. If the reader wants a general introduction, this is a decent place to start, if incomplete. But if the reader knows the issue and argument, don't bother with this book if you are looking for new detail or comprehensive coverage. A far far better book is Nelson Lichtenstien's Wal-Mart: The Face of 21-Century Capitalism.