TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.
Wal-Mart: NO. 1 WITH A SMILE
By TJ Sullivan
Ventura County Star
Workers in blue vests are breezing though aisles of underwear, past Pringles and pudding cups, foot massagers, crock pots, toilet plungers and fish hooks.
The day has only just begun at the Simi Valley Wal-Mart and workers are already soaring through the scent of coffee wafting from the McDonald's outlet. They're bounding past Barbie dolls and shotguns, boxes of Crunch and Munch, and $1.94 bottles of Boone's Farm "flavored grape wine."
It's another day, which means another semi-truck of merchandise — more than $70,000 worth of products — is about to be pulled from shelves, tossed on Wal-Mart's checkout counters, and packed into blue plastic bags painted with the smiley-faced company mascot. And so, everyone is in a rush to get happy.
Wal-Mart is getting busier.
Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target all began the same year — 1962 — but it's Wal-Mart that's on the verge of becoming the biggest company on the big, blue planet. Kmart is raging against the dying of its big, blue light and Target is still in the shadows of both competitors, operating only about 1,000 stores in 46 states.
Kmart built an empire of more than 2,100 stores, but it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, signaling significant financial woes.
Wal-Mart, on the other hand, is standing like Alexander the Great over a domain of more than 4,300 stores and 1.2 million employees worldwide. Financial analysts expect the result will be the declaration by Fortune magazine of Wal-Mart as the largest company in the world, surpassing ExxonMobile, which claimed revenue of $212.9 billion in 2001.
Until that declaration is made, however, Wal-Mart won't address the issue, or speculation that its revenue topped$220 billion last year. Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark., says it wouldn't be "appropriate" until the dollars are all counted — a calculation expected to be released Tuesday.
And, since dollars are all that Wal-Mart makes —it manufactures nothing — the workers at the Simi Valley Wal-Mart will have plenty to do regardless of what Fortune magazine says.
So they flock to the Layaway Department, to another meeting, to prepare for the daily passage of merchandise.
"Good morning David, welcome to Wal-Mart (clap, clap, stomp, stomp)! Huah!"
The man in the tie, David Vasquez, an assistant store manager in Simi Valley, has now received the official Wal-Mart greeting from nearly two dozen workers, shouting out the start of the morning meeting. The workers stomp their feet and clap their hands and hurl out a "Huah!" with all the enthusiasm of an angry Al Pacino.
"I know you guys all know, obviously, about Kmart," Vasquez says. "What's the biggest opportunity for us right now? To gain customers, right?"
As is the case in many communities, Kmart has a store less than a mile away from the Wal-Mart in Simi Valley. There's a Target, too, its red-and-white trademark circles vying for the attention of shoppers on the opposite side of town.
Vasquez is priming the competitive spirits of his workers, who at Wal-Mart are called "associates." He says the number of customers visiting the Wal-Mart store at Madera Road and Cochran Street has increased. He doesn't know how much at this particular moment, but the number is up there — 100, or maybe 1,000 more than the previous weekend. "Remember guys," he says, "they still got a choice between Target and Wal-Mart, so let's make sure we're using…what tool? The 10-foot E"
"The 10-foot rule," comes the reply in baritone and soprano, but mostly soprano — 59 percent of Wal-Mart employees worldwide are women.
The 10-foot rule is a critical part of the Wal-Mart culture. It is Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's request that his associates look customers in the eye upon coming within 10 feet of them, then offer a greeting and ask if they need help.
"Even though they may not need help, say, 'Hi, how are you doing?' " Vasquez explains as he continues the morning meeting, repeating what's repeated dawn after dawn in stores in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Canada, China, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, South Korea and the United Kingdom. "You'd be surprised what kind of a smile you can bring to someone's face, to have someone acknowledge them."
But it doesn't stop there. "Walk them to the aisle," Vasquez says. "Too many of the other stores have not done that, and that's why Wal-Mart has been able to excel at customer service."
Then comes the cheer, an eruption of exhilaration led by another assistant store manager, Don Griswold. Together, all the associates shout out each letter in W-A-L-M-A-R-T, complete with the "squiggly" in between Wal and Mart, which is really either a hyphen, or sometimes a star, but no one seems willing to quibble over a "squiggly."
They shake their hips in Twist-and-Shout fashion as they shout it — "squiggly!"
"What's that spell? Wal-Mart! Who's number one? The customer! Always!"
Dilbert would make fun of this place.
Weber says the company does the cheer every morning because it's "very motivating." Walton came up with the idea after a visit in 1975 to Korea, where he saw workers starting their days with similar expressions of team spirit.
"The cheer is just an exciting way to start our day," Weber said.
Sam Walton began his career as a management trainee at J.C. Penney Co. in the 1940s, and within 25 years was well on his way to financial freedom. He opened his first Wal-Mart store in 1962, then opened 25 more before the end of the decade.
Today, Wal-Mart is seen in more places than Elvis. It's in all 50 states, and has been since 1995, when Vermont finally got a one-stop shop for everything from gun racks to greeting cards.
Though they're everywhere, the predominant presence of Wal-Mart is clearly in the south.
Alabama has 90 Wal-Marts in various forms, about half of which are Supercenters — the bigger, 24-hour versions that provide round-the-clock access to groceries and general merchandise: everything from lingerie to lasagna noodles.
Arkansas has 81 Wal-Marts, Supercenters and Sam's Clubs, membership stores that are a subsidiary of Wal-Mart.
Texas tops the list with more than 300 of the stores.
Wal-Mart is so much a part of life in the region that when NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died a year ago, New York Times reporter Rick Bragg, who grew up in the South, knew it was perhaps the best place to go for reaction in Earnhardt's hometown of Mooresville, N.C.
"His death brought a silence to the Wal-Mart," Bragg wrote.
For some people, Wal-Mart is "the" place to be.
Even in Simi Valley there are customers who visit the store every day, or at least several days a week.
"I live here," says Jeanne Batterton as she pushes her6-month-old son, Max, in aWal-Mart cart.
Batterton visits the store about twice a week, sometimes to shop and "sometimes just to take him out," she says, nodding to her son.
Children approach the entrance with wrists raised, expecting a yellow, smiley-face sticker in return. Regular customers and associates sometimes exchange hugs.
"I guess it's just a cheerful place to be," says Arlene Barnett, who has been an "exit greeter" at Wal-Mart since the Simi Valley store opened three years ago.
But not everyone wants a smiley-faced sticker, or a smiley-faced greeter.
Charlie Coe, who took a job as an "entrance greeter" at Wal-Mart after retiring from building satellites for Hughes Aircraft, offers a no-nonsense assessment of playing the role of Mr. Howdy.
"People are generally real OK," Coe says. "Some people are nasty to you…and you'd like to say 'hmm,' but you don't."
Many of the regulars, however, treat store employees like family.
"I've had customers come in here since their babies were born," says Sara Stump, manager of the infant and boys' apparel department in Simi Valley. "I know their names most of the time. They bring me Christmas cards. I had one invite me to their kid's birthday at Chuck E. Cheese's."
The Simi Valley Wal-Mart opened in 1999, the same year Wal-Mart claimed 1.14 million workers, making it the largest non-government employer in the world.
The first California store opened in 1990, the same year Wal-Mart earned the distinction of being the nation's No. 1 retailer. Now there are about 120 Wal-Marts and 26 Sam's Clubs in California. In Ventura County, Wal-Mart has stores in Simi Valley and Oxnard.
After entering the Golden State, Wal-Mart began its global push, opening a store in Mexico City.
In 1997 Wal-Mart replaced Woolworths on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The chain's biggest single day of sales ever was this past year, on the day after Thanksgiving — $1.25 billion.
Every week in America, at least one new Wal-Mart opens somewhere.
"Welcome to Wal-Mart (clap, clap, stomp, stomp)! Huah!"
Wal-Mart does not dance to the same tune as other stores.
It doesn't like bad words.
For example, a copy of the music group Nirvana's album "In Utero" sold at Salzer's Records in Ventura includes the song "Rape Me." The same album sold at Wal-Mart lists the title as "Waif Me."
"There are actual changes in lyrics to placate the Wal-Mart censors," said Jim Salzer, owner of Salzer's Records. "The problem is that as the big chains get bigger they eliminate the competition, and as that happens…censorship gets tighter. The whole point of rock and roll is a biting, cutting edge. …You go censoring it, it's like taking away places for kids to go hang out. They have to have something to act out against."
Many musicians and music store owners dislike Wal-Mart for such reasons. Wal-Mart simply says that its policy is to not carry "stickered" music, a reference to the parental-guidance stickers that warn of strong language. Rather than be shut out, companies that produce CDs and tapes have created versions especially for sale in Wal-Mart. They have cut words — like "rape" — from songs, removed songs entirely, or changed cover art. Such alterations are noted by the tiny declaration of "edited" on the price tag.
But it's not just about so-called bad language.
Wal-Mart appears to dislike bad publicity, too.
Six years ago it refused to sell an album by musician Sheryl Crow because it included a song with the lyrics "Watch out sister, watch out brother, watch our children while they kill each other with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores."
Wal-Mart said the line was unfair. Crow's album was not "stickered" music.
Wal-Mart doesn't like unions either, claiming that its associates are afforded an open-door policy of communication. It says there's no need for third-party representation to fight for salaries or benefits.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union offered the findings of a study prepared three years ago as an example of how union representation can result in higher wages. That study, which was prepared by two University of California associate professors for the Orange County Business Council, said a typical unionized Southern California grocery chain employee has annual pay of $32,385. That same study said the typical Wal-Mart worker's salary ranges from $17,700 to $20,209 a year.
Weber, the company spokeswoman, declined to confirm the veracity of salary figures.
Neither Kmart nor Target is unionized, either.
Then there's the controversy over the morning-after pill, Preven, which is not available at Wal-Mart pharmacies.
The company disputes suppositions that, by not carrying the drug, it's making a political, moral or ethical statement about when life begins in a woman's body. Instead, Weber said, it's a business decision. There was not enough demand for the pill, she said.
Wal-Mart pharmacies do carry Viagra and birth-control pills.
Perhaps Wal-Mart's most well-known conflict is its clash with mom-and-pop stores over the location of Wal-Marts in rural areas. Small stores say they are unable to compete with the chain's low prices — the result of the superior buying power associated with being the world's largest retailer.
But many customers appear unfazed.
"Theoretically, this used to be a small store," Batterton says as she pulls a pair of $5 infant trousers from a rack in Simi Valley. "So, I don't know that I feel so bad for a mom-and-pop store."
"It's the world of competition," says Fred Schnelle, another customer. "We always go here first," he says, standing over his wife's wheelchair.
Schnelle's wife, Ursula, greets an associate with a hug as she makes her way into the store. Sometimes she brings the associates homemade candy.
"I just feel at home here," she says. "The sales people are real nice…we have made friends with some of them. If the sales people are unhappy, or short with you…I don't have time for that."
Wal-Mart is in touch with that emotion.
Randall Donohue, an instructor in California Lutheran University's School of Business, said that is the key to Wal-Mart's success — keeping prices low, listening to employees and catering to customers.
"They are the big dog on the block and they really squeeze the suppliers," Donohue said. "And so, of course, they can pass those savings on to the customer."
Wal-Mart even offers little perks, like allowing customers with recreational vehicles to spend the night in Wal-Mart parking lots free of charge. Rand McNally, the map maker, has even put out a U.S. road atlas that highlights the location of every Wal-Mart in America.
It's all designed to get people to come home to Wal-Mart.
"On a dreary day I'll say, 'C'mon into the sunshine,' and it is like there's sunshine in here," says Barnett, the exit greeter, her eyebrows raised, cheeks taut with a smile.
And lest the associates forget that, they're reminded each morning with cheers and greetings.
"Welcome to Wal-Mart (clap, clap, stomp, stomp)! Huah!"
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