The Retail Revolution

The Retail Revolution

by Nelson Lichtenstein

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Wal-Mart is the world's largest company and it sets the standard--both social and commercial--for a huge swath of the global economy. In this probing investigation, historian Nelson Lichtenstein shows how the company's success has spread evangelical Protestantism into the workplace, made South China an American workshop, and pushed American politics to the right.


Wal-Mart is the world's largest company and it sets the standard--both social and commercial--for a huge swath of the global economy. In this probing investigation, historian Nelson Lichtenstein shows how the company's success has spread evangelical Protestantism into the workplace, made South China an American workshop, and pushed American politics to the right. At the same time, he anticipates a day of reckoning, when challenges to the Wal-Mart way, at home and abroad, are likely to change the far-flung empire. Insightful and original, The Retail Revolution gives a fresh and necessary understanding of the phenomenon that has reshaped international commerce.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A terrific book... Lichtenstein does a beautiful job of putting Wal-Mart in its historical context... A definitive account not only of Wal-Mart's past but also of the forces shaping its future.” —Los Angeles Times

“Nelson Lichtenstein has written the book on Wal-Mart. You can read it as a sober indictment of the rogue company that happens also to be the world's largest corporation. Or you can read it as a brilliantly reported case study in what's gone wrong with the American--and the global--economy. Either way, you will read it, as I did, with complete fascination.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

“Offers penetrating insights… Lichtenstein sheds valuable light on the technological reasons for Wal-Mart's success… and provides a detailed look at the dark side of the company's employment practices.… As Lichtenstein argues, Wal-Mart may have done more than any other American institution to undermine labor regulations.” —The New York Times Book Review

The Retail Revolution is usefully comprehensive and offers the best account yet of the myriad problems that Wal-Mart employees endure.” —

“Surely the best account we have of Wal-Mart's metamorphosis from a backwater chain to the nation's dominant corporation... The rise of Wal-Mart, and the national economy it has shaped in its image, is a story that Lichtenstein is eminently suited to tell.” —The American Prospect

“Comprehensive socioeconomic history… Lichtenstein paints a convincing portrait of a multinational conglomerate willing to dehumanize people in the pursuit of profit, even as it tries to convince us that people are its No. 1 concern. A definitive survey of Wal-Mart and the company's worldview.” —Kirkus Reviews

“America's wisest historian of business and labor has produced a masterpiece of reportage and analysis about the self-service country store that grew into the biggest merchandiser in the world. The Retail Revolution is far more than the best book ever written about Wal-Mart. It is a landmark work about the history of our time.” —Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

“This lively yet incisive account of Wal-Mart, one of our era's most important economic institutions, challenges the claim that the company has been a boon to the U.S. economy, providing a thoughtful and much-needed perspective on inequality and insecurity in modern America.” —Sanford M. Jacoby, author of The Embedded Corporation

“Lichtenstein's calmly critical book sets the rise of Wal-Mart within its broader historical and cultural context, adding a valuable new perspective to the often fraught debate over the role of the world's largest retailer.” —Jonathan Birchall, U.S. consumer correspondent, The Financial Times

“Nelson Lichtenstein is the paramount authority on the world's largest and most influential company, one that affects the lives of nearly all Americans and has transformed traditional business. In The Retail Revolution, original research and a profound understanding of American capitalism combine to produce a vivid account not only of how Wal-Mart has changed society, but how society in turn is now changing Wal-Mart.” —Ron Galloway, director of Why Wal-Mart Works

“Readers wishing to grasp the brave new world of Wal-Mart in all its dimensions can't do better than Nelson Lichtenstein's engrossing and chilling account.” —Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect

author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Je Michael Kazin
America's wisest historian of business and labor has produced a masterpiece of reportage and analysis about the self-service country store that grew into the biggest merchandiser in the world. The Retail Revolution is far more than the best book ever written about Wal-Mart. It is a landmark work about the history of our time.

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First Edition, With a New Afterword
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6.86(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt



Shopping has become the most important thing we do to keep America's $13 trillion economy humming. It is the retailers, Wal-Mart first among them, who have become the key players in the worldwide marketplace of our time. They are the new business giants fueling the China boom, building huge container ports on every continent, and transforming the metropolitan landscape at home. Controlling more than half of all world trade, they make the markets, set the prices, and determine the worldwide distribution of labor to produce that gigantic stream of commodities that flows across checkout counters in every major industrial country.

All this is graphically apparent upon a visit to the two most dynamic nodes of transnational capitalism today. It is easy to get to Bentonville, Arkansas, where Wal-Mart has its world headquarters in an unimpressive, low-slung building nearby the company's original warehouse. There are lots of direct flights from Denver, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to this once remote town in the far northwestern corner of Arkansas; Beijing and Hong Kong are but one stop away. Bentonville is still not very big. Between Fayetteville, the university town twenty miles to the south, and the Missouri line just north of Bentonville there are hardly more than three hundred thousand people. But it is now one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in the country. The parking lots are full, the streets are crowded, and new construction is everywhere. There are dozens of subdivisions full of oversized houses, scores of freshly built motels and hotels, new country clubs and churches, and even a mosque and a synagogue. And the Walton family presence is everywhere: there's a Sam Walton Boulevard in Bentonville; a Bud Walton Arena and a Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas; a terminal building named after daughter Alice Walton at the airport; and an ambitious, family-funded art museum in the offing.

Most important, Bentonville and nearby Rogers are now home to at least 750 branch offices of the largest Wal-Mart "vendors" who have planted their corporate flag in northwest Arkansas in the hope that they can maintain or increase their sales with the world's largest buyer of consumer products. Procter & Gamble, which in 1987 may well have been the first company to put an office there, now has a staff of more than 250 in Fayetteville; likewise Sanyo, Levi Strauss, Nestlé, Johnson and Johnson, Eastman Kodak, Mattel, and Kraft Foods maintain large offices in what the locals sometimes call "Vendorville." Walt Disney's large retail business has its headquarters not in Los Angeles but in Rogers, Arkansas.

These Wal-Mart suppliers are a who's who of American and international business, staffed by ambitious young executives who have come to see a posting to once-remote Bentonville as the crucial step that can make or break a corporate career.1 If they can meet Wal-Mart's exacting price and performance standards, their products will be sucked into the stream of commodities that flows through the world's largest and most efficient supply chain. For any goods maker or designer, it is the brass ring of American salesmanship, which explains why all those sophisticates from New York, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles are dining at the surprisingly large number of good restaurants that have sprung up in northwest Arkansas.

If Bentonville represents one nerve center of retail's global supply network, Guangdong Province is the other. Located on the southern coast of China, its sprawling factories link a vast new Chinese proletariat to the American retailers who are putting billions of Chinese-made products on a million U.S. discount store shelves every day. With more than 15 million migrant workers, tens of thousands of export-oriented factories, and new cities like Shenzhen, which has mushroomed to more than 7 million people in just a quarter century, Guangdong can plausibly claim to be the contemporary "workshop of the world," following in the footsteps of nineteenth-century Manchester and early-twentieth-century Detroit.

This was my thought when I taxied across Dongguan, a gritty, smoggy, industrial sprawl located on the east side of the Pearl River between Guangzhou (the old Canton) and skyscraper-etched Shenzhen. We drove for more than an hour late one Sunday afternoon, along broad but heavily trafficked streets, bordered by bustling stores, welding shops, warehouses, small manufacturers, and the occasional large factory complex. This is how the cities of the old American rust belt must have once looked, smelled, even vibrated.

Because of its proximity to Hong Kong, as well as its remoteness from the capital, the Chinese government in Beijing chose Shenzhen as a special economic zone in 1979. A few years later the entire Pearl River Delta became part of this zone, with low corporate taxes, few environmental or urban-planning regulations, and the increasingly free movement of capital and profits in and out of the region. The results were spectacular.Gross domestic product in the Pearl River region leaped from $8 billion in 1980 to $351 billion in 2006. Shenzhen's population rose twentyfold. Guangdong Province itself, which covers most of the Pearl River Delta, produces a third of China's total exports. And 10 percent of all that finds its way to Wal-Mart's U.S. shelves.2

Although Wal-Mart owns no factories outright, its presence is unmistakable. Its world buying headquarters is now in Shenzhen, it has already put more than a dozen big stores in the province, and Wal-Mart is feared and respected by everyone involved with any aspect of the export trade. That is why the executives at the Yantian International Container Terminal in Shenzhen, now the fourth-largest port in the world, give top priority to Wal-Mart-bound cargoes. "Wal-Mart is king," a port official said when I visited there in 2005.

But the Pearl River Delta is not merely an export platform like the border region of northern Mexico or the free trade zones of the Caribbean. In Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and their environs, well-paved roads pass through a staggeringly crowded landscape of factories, offices, dormitories, apartments, and streams of migrant labor. Governments at both the provincial and national levels are making huge infrastructure investments; likewise thousands of foreign investors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and the United States are building production facilities of increasing complexity and capacity. This makes it possible to transform raw materials into containerized consumer goods in just a few weeks. Nike managers at the huge Yue Yuen factory complex in Dongguan bragged that they could fill an order from the United States in just two months. Container ships are loaded in half the time it takes in Los Angeles.

The Retail Revolution puts all this into world history. It explains how Wal-Mart, America's largest and most controversial company, roared out of an isolated corner of the rural South to become the vanguard of a retail revolution that has transformed the nature of U.S. employment, sent U.S. manufacturing abroad, and redefined the very meaning of globalization.

For decades neither economists nor politicians gave retailing the respect it deserved. Shopping was what we did once all the heavy lifting had been sweated out of us: after the steel had been poured, the automobiles assembled, the skyscrapers built, and the crops harvested. This was certainly the way the editors of America's most august business magazine saw the world. Fortune's famous list of the five hundred largest American corporations consigned even the biggest retailers to second-class economic citizenship. The publisher Henry Luce had inaugurated the Fortune 500 in 1955 when the top five U.S. firms were General Motors, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Ford, U.S. Steel, and Chrysler. His editors at Fortune, reflecting the views of economists and businessmen in general, thought the mere selling and transport of consumer goods a derivative, subordinate, dependent function within the more important and far larger industrial, factory-based economy. So the retailers were not considered for the Fortune 500 list, even if they were billion-dollar chains like Sears or Woolworth.

But by the 1990s this perspective was clearly at odds with economic and social reality. Manufacturing was "dematerializing" in an economy of "digitization and deregulation," asserted a new generation of Fortune editors. This was "fuzzing up the line between manufacturing and service activities."3 Were companies like Nike and Microsoft manufacturing companies or design and marketing powerhouses? Likewise, a new and innovative set of great retailers were not just huge employers with an enormous stream of revenue, but their connections with a global manufacturing network were practically incestuous. They might not own the Asian or Central American factories from which they sourced all those big-box consumables, but their "vendors" were linked to them by a "supply chain" that evoked the iron shackles subordinating slave to master.

Thus when Fortune inserted retailers on its list of giant corporations, Wal-Mart immediately popped up as number 4,measured by sales revenue, right behind GM, Ford, and Exxon Mobil. Sears Roebuck was number 9 and Kmart number 15. Indeed, by 1995 sixteen of the top one hundred firms on the Fortune 500 list were mass retailers. Wal-Mart, which also displaced General Motors as the largest private employer in the nation, moved to number 1 on the Fortune 500 list in 2002, and it has held that rank ever since, except for the year 2006 when the spike in oil prices put Exxon Mobil at the top. Today, the retail trade employs some 15.5 million workers, more than in all manufacturing. Wal-Mart alone employs almost twenty times the number of workers as the biggest oil company.4

Founded less than fifty years ago by Sam Walton and his brother Bud, this Arkansas company is today the largest private-sector employer in the world, with nearly 2 million workers, 1.4 million of whom are in the United States. It operates more than six thousand huge stores, doing more business than Target, Home Depot, Sears Holdings, Safeway, and Kroger combined. It imports more goods from China than either the United Kingdom or Russia. Though Wal-Mart and the other mass retailers seem low-tech, these big-box stores may actually be the most consequential and effective users of computer processing power in our time. Their lofty place on the Fortune 500 thus signals a tectonic power shift within the structure of the economy, both in the United States and around the world.

The retailers, Wal-Mart above all, have set the standard for a new stage in the history of corporate capitalism. When Peter Drucker, the founder of modern management studies, wrote the pioneering analysis of a modern business, The Concept of the Corporation, in 1946, it was the General Motors organization from the Flint assembly lines to the executive offices in Detroit and New York that he thought exemplified corporate modernity in all its variegated aspects. Sixty years ago GM was the world's largest corporation, with sales that amounted to about 3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, making it an even larger economic presence than Wal-Mart is today. "The automobile industry," wrote Drucker, "stands for modern industry all over the globe. It is to the twentieth century what the Lancashire cotton mills were to the nineteenth century: the industry of industries."5

Other powerful enterprises have been hugely influential of course, the template enterprises of their time, embodying an innovative set of technological advances, organizational structures, and social relationships. At the end of the nineteenth century the Pennsylvania Railroad declared itself "the standard of the world." U.S. Steel defined the meaning of corporate power and efficiency for decades after J. P. Morgan consolidated the first billion-dollar company in 1901. In the mid-twentieth century General Motors symbolized bureaucratic management, mass production, and the social enfranchisement of a unionized, high-wage, blue-collar workforce. In the 1960s and 1970s IBM seemed an information-age version of General Motors, but in more recent years, Microsoft, Google, and the other Web-based innovators have seemed the model for a digital economy that has transformed the production and diffusion of knowledge around the globe.

Wal-Mart today commands the respect and influence once wielded by the manufacturing giants of the twentieth century. The company's innovations in logistics, merchandising, and labor relations have become part of the core curriculum at Harvard and other business schools, and not only for those with their eyes on an executive post in retail.6 Just as industrialists and social savants were mesmerized by the "machine age" power of Ford's first assembly lines nearly a century ago, so today we live in a time when the supremacy of the mass retailers, in culture, politics, and ideology, as well as logistics, manufacturing, and merchandising, seems to define so much of our contemporary world.

In business, information is the raw material out of which market power is built. Before Wal-Mart, the bar code was but a grocery store innovation, useful for quickly scanning cans of soup and cartons of milk. But Sam Walton made the lowly bar code sing: he demanded that all Wal-Mart vendors slap a bar code on every product they shipped to his stores, and then he built a mammoth "digital warehouse" in Bentonville to slice and dice all the information that now poured across Wal-Mart's checkout counters each day. This enabled Wal-Mart, as opposed to the manufacturer, wholesaler, or distributor, to capture, manipulate, and respond to the raw sales data generated by billions of individual transactions each week. Sam Walton and his successors understood that this kind of knowledge gave them an enormous competitive advantage, which they deployed to vastly increase the efficacy of what the biz school professors now labeled the "retail supply chain. "Wal-Mart now wields the tools to relentlessly squeeze every cost out of both its worldwide system of supply as well as the millions who work for the Bentonville giant, directly in its stores and warehouses or at the workbench of the sixty thousand vendors who are dependent upon the American retailer.

Wal-Mart began as an Arkansas upstart, but its enormous commercial success created a business template that reshaped the nation. It is the architect of a social order here in the United States that reflects its origins in the rural South of a half century ago. Unlike so many other twentieth-century titans of American business, Wal-Mart began its stupendous growth in a region that was distinctively provincial, even fundamentally at odds with the economic structures and political expectations that had nurtured commerce in the great northern tier of industrial states that stretched from Boston to Chicago and Minneapolis. America's manufacturing belt was a region of ethnic and racial heterogeneity, home to an increasingly skilled workforce and, after the reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society eras, a potent union movement and an extensive welfare state.

In contrast, the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri were poor, white, and rural. Neither the New Deal nor the civil rights impulse had really come to that region when Sam Walton began to assemble his chain of small-town stores in the 1950s and 1960s. But the agricultural revolution of the early postwar era was in full swing, depopulating the farms and sending tens of thousands of white women and men in search of their first real paycheck. Walton took full advantage of these circumstances.7

Indeed, one hidden key to the Wal-Mart success story is Mr. Sam's capacity to capitalize upon the social and cultural "backwardness" of his region in order to build an organization of exceptional flexibility and efflciency. Walton's folksy paternalism was not a new management style, but he carried it off with brio, expressing a barely veiled contempt for the federal laws and Yankee business practices that sought to reshape the South. Like so many other employers of his time and region, Walton played fast and loose with minimumwage regulations and overtime standards, not to mention the new laws governing race and gender equality in the workplace. And of course Walton was a bitter foe of any union effort to organize his stores.8 In the place of all this governmental regulation, Wal-Mart created a self-contained corporate culture, an ideology of family, faith, and folk communalism that to this day coexists in strange harmony with a Dickensian world of low wages, job insecurity, and pervasive corporate surveillance.

Even as Wal-Mart expanded beyond the Ozarks, the company consciously targeted the kind of low-income customers with which it had started. In the process it reproduced the distinctive entrepreneurial culture and grinding labor policies that Walton had worked for decades to construct. Wal-Mart's growth after 1980, when the chain had 276 stores,9 was nurtured by the transformation of the economic environment ushered in by Reagan and his conservative successors. It relieved employers, especially the retailers and fast-food restaurants, of hundreds of billions of dollars in annual labor costs. Real wages at Wal-Mart actually declined in the years after 1978, tracking the 30 percent fall in the real value of the minimum wage during the next three decades.10

Wal-Mart's expansion during that era, into the Midwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and many of the struggling rust belt cities of the old manufacturing heartland, paralleled the Republican conquest of much of this same territory. Wal-Mart and the GOP worked symbiotically to roll back the wage standards and welfare systems established since the New Deal, while promoting a Protestant, evangelical sense of social morality, the deunionization of labor, and the global expansion not only of U.S. economic power but of American cultural authority as well.

Today the commercial and political influence of this giant corporation enables Wal-Mart to rezone our cities, set health insurance and wage standards for millions of Americans, determine the popular music many teenagers can buy, channel trade and capital throughout the world, and conduct a kind of international diplomacy with a dozen nations. In an era of weak government regulation, Wal-Mart management may well have more power than any other entity to "legislate" key components of American social and industrial policy. The Arkansas-based giant is well aware of this leverage, which is why it is spending millions of dollars on TV advertisements that tout how its stores revitalize communities, employ happy workers, and generate an outpouring of philanthropic good works.11

Wal-Mart and its defenders emphasize the extent to which the company and its emulators have been in the vanguard of a revolution that has squeezed billions of dollars out of a once-bloated system of manufacture, transport, distribution, and sales, thus contributing decisively to a cheaper market basket for millions of hard-pressed shoppers.12 But not everyone is convinced that this Wal-Mart bargain is either beneficial or long for our world. The evisceration of U.S. consumer goods manufacturing has been largely completed, yet the fate of the hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and the tens of millions of workers in Central America and East Asia is hardly settled. The commodities produced by this vast new working class are the lifeblood of the retail revolution, but it would be a mistake to count forever upon this torrent of cheap and sweated products. China, the most dynamic economy in the world, is also an exceedingly unstable place, plagued and energized by tens of thousands of strikes, protests, marches, and demonstrations each year.

The market-minded Communists still in control of that mega-nation vacillate between repression and accommodation, while Western investors have jacked up both wages and prices at the same time as they search for new lands and new hands with which to fill the insatiable supply chains that feed the big-box universe. History teaches us that rapid industrialization cannot be sustained for long on the backs of an impoverished and unfree working class. From the mines and mills of Victorian Britain to the shipyards and shoe factories of contemporary East Asia, the search for a higher standard of living and a more democratic society has often disputed and displaced business practices and plans that once seemed rational and efficient. The revolt of these millions may yet represent an insoluble challenge to the world Sam Walton built.

In the United States the stakes are different but still compelling. When Wal-Mart locates one of its grocery-selling Supercenters in metropolitan America, it asserts the legitimacy and power of a brand of capitalism that is antithetical to the regulated marketplace and the high-wage nation that was built by reformers and unionists during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The company is therefore constantly defending itself against a set of class-action lawsuits—some involving race and gender discrimination, others charging company violation of state and federal laws governing overtime pay, lunch breaks, and health and safety standards—.led by those who seek not only compensation for their clients but reform of Wal-Mart's internal pay and promotion practices.

Likewise, Wal-Mart finds itself in the midst of a permanent political campaign, promoting its expansion plans before scores of zoning commissions, city councils, and county supervisory boards all across blue-state America. Here local merchants, environmentalists, liberal activists, and labor partisans have drawn the line against Wal-Mart's effort to impose its alien business model on their home turf. And with the Democrats now in power in so many state legislatures and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, it is certain that Wal-Mart and every other employer of low-wage labor will become embroiled in a fierce political battle over the cost of an expanded health insurance system, an increase in the minimum wage, the definition of free trade, and the effort to make unionization once again possible for millions of U.S. workers. Wal-Mart's omnipresence in commerce and culture has therefore drawn a new set of fault lines within American politics, creating the conditions for a day of reckoning, both at home and abroad, that is likely to affect almost every aspect of its far-flung operations. A battle royal is upon us, the outcome of which will shape American life for a generation.


Copyright © 2009 by Nelson Lichtenstein

Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

Nelson Lichtenstein is one of the country's leading experts on labor and politics and the editor of a much-cited collection of essays on Wal-Mart. A professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, he is also the author of several highly regarded books on American history, including the award-winning Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.

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