The Retail Revolution How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business

Nelson Lichtenstein




Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company, roared out of the rural South to change the way business is done. Deploying computer-age technology, Reagan-era politics, and Protestant evangelism, Sam Walton’s firm became a byword for cheap goods and low-paid workers, famed for the ruthless efficiency of its global network of stores and factories. But the revolution has gone further: Sam’s protégés have created a new economic order which puts thousands of manufacturers—indeed, whole regions—in thrall to a retail royalty. Like the Pennsylvania Railroad and General Motors in their heyday, Wal-Mart sets the commercial model for a huge swath of the global economy.

In this lively, probing investigation, historian Nelson Lichtenstein deepens and expands our knowledge of the merchandising giant. He shows that Wal-Mart’s rise was closely linked to the cultural and religious values of Bible Belt America as well as to the imperial politics, deregulatory economics, and laissez-faire globalization of Ronald Reagan and his heirs. He explains how the company’s success has transformed American politics, and 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, original, and steeped in the culture of retail life, The Retail Revolution draws on firsthand reporting from coastal China to rural Arkansas to give a fresh and necessary understanding of the phenomenon that has reshaped international commerce.


Praise for The Retail Revolution

"Lichtenstein’s sheds valuable light on the technological reasons for the company’s success. His detailed account of the company’s early prowess in exploiting bar-code scanning and satellite technology helps explain how Wal-Mart revolutionized the way distribution channels are organized. Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also provides a detailed look at the dark side of the company’s employment practices. From its ruthless efforts at union-busting to its determination to overcome basic safety and hours regulation to its widespread employment of sweatshop subcontractors in China, Wal-Mart has consistently maintained that no one has the right to limit the corporation’s freedom to act as it pleases."—Robert Frank, The New York Times Book Review

"As a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lichtenstein's Wal-Mart expertise carries weight . . . At first glance, the reader might question, why another book on Wal-Mart business and logistics, why now? But Retail Revolution is more than a timeline of Wal-Mart's path from discounter in the Ozarks to mega player in the global marketplace. The book is most interesting for sociological insight into how Wal-Mart rose to success--not despite its rural origins, but by capitalizing 'backward' southern values."—Lily-Hayes Kaufman, Forbes

"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

"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

"As America’s foremost Wal-Mart expert, Nelson Lichtenstein has chronicled the rise of the world’s largest company—and the fierce anti-unionism that has become one of its corporate trademarks. The renowned labor historian’s latest book, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, may be the definitive account of how the discount retailer grew from Arkansas to blaze a new commercial model in a globalized economy."—In These Times

"With a seeming entire bookstore section's worth of Wal-Mart related manuscripts, The Retail Revolution actually offer genuinely interesting, fair minded, and sometimes new information about the proverbial Wal-Mart tree; everything from its deep south roots, strong middle America trunk, and to its international branches is analyzed with thoroughness."—Jordan Dacayanan, Sacramento Book Review

"The Retail Revolution is usefully comprehensive and offers the best account yet of the myriad problems that Wal-Mart employees endure, including the elaborate measures the company has taken to avoid paying workers' compensation to employees injured on the job . . . Unlike any other retailer, Wal-Mart has, when criticized for its low wages and anti-union extremism, made political and economic arguments in its own defense: arguing that Wal-Mart's prices are so low that they've offered, in CEO Lee Scott's words, 'a lifeline for millions of middle and lower-income families who live payday to payday. In effect, [Wal-Mart] gives them a raise every time they shop with us.' Lichtenstein, to his credit, is willing to shed academic objectivity and intervene in such bogus arguments, pointing out that consumer goods now represent only 18 percent of a family's budget, while the costs of housing, health care, and education have skyrocketed. None of these expensive things can be purchased at Wal-Mart, he notes, but they can be bought with higher wages, which Wal-Mart has always done everything in its political power—fighting EFCA, quashing efforts to raise the minimum wage—to oppose."—Liza Featherstone, The Big Money

"Wal-Mart employs two million people and operates 6,000 stores, 'doing more business than Target, Home Depot, Sears Holdings, Safeway, and Kroger combined.' Historian and Wal-Mart authority Lichtenstein writes that its success 'has transformed the nature of U.S. employment, sent U.S. manufacturing abroad, and redefined the very meaning of globalization.' The author brilliantly situates his narrative within the context of world history and the global economy, creating a lucid, evenhanded text that often reads like a novel. Relying on scholarly and journalistic sources, including his own reporting and interviews, Lichtenstein reveals how Wal-Mart's domination of the retail world stems from its ruthless efficiency of distribution and consolidation of control at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. He also demonstrates the company's shrewd use of technological innovation—particularly satellite communications and the now ubiquitous bar code. The author is especially effective in his discussion of the geological and social landscape from which it grew and derived its crucially important and much-emulated corporate culture—the poor, mostly white, rural Ozark Mountains. In this region, women and minorities were discouraged from pursuing social mobility, businesses were hostile toward laws impeding customary labor arrangements—i.e., cheap hourly wages, untenable work schedules and enormously high turnover rates—and the forces of evangelical Christianity, while not officially embraced by Wal-Mart, worked in harmony with its small-town values of family and faith. Lichtenstein paints a convincing portrait of a multinational conglomerate willing to dehumanize people in its 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

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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
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  • Nelson Lichtenstein

  • 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.