Wal-Mart launches charm offensive

Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott led a media charge to counter criticism that the world’s largest retailer is a behemoth that takes advantage of its workers and stifles competition.

Scott said on Thursday he wants Wal-Mart workers to know the company was speaking up for them, and he wants Wal-Mart to have a better handle on how it is perceived by the public.

The company bought full-page ads in more than 100 newspapers around the United States to highlight its message that it provides opportunity for advancement and that its stores provide mainly full-time jobs with a broad benefits package.

“We want to get those myths off the table, set the record straight,” Scott said in a telephone interview. He was in New York City for a round of media interviews.

But a union critic of the discount chain said on Thursday the company was ignoring social costs created by its megastores. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has been striving for years to organise Wal-Mart workers, said the company was bending the truth.

Union spokesperson Greg Denier said Wal-Mart may count about three-fourths of its workers as full time, but said those employees do not get full 40-hour weeks.
He said the health insurance the company touts is too expensive and does not provide enough coverage for illnesses that are short of catastrophic.

Wal-Mart has 1,2-million employees in the United States, making it the nation’s largest private employer. Scott said Wal-Mart gives communities stable jobs, and workers have advancement opportunities and benefits that include stock purchases, a retirement plan and discount cards.

Scott said the company wants to take its message directly to its customers and their communities. “Customers trust us, and they want to know their trust is well-placed,” he said.

That’s true of some Wal-Mart shoppers but not most, said Jim Rice, chief credit officer at Bernard Sands Retail Performance Monitor in New York.

“I don’t think a majority of shoppers pay attention to either the charges or to Wal-Mart’s defence,” Rice said.

“If Wal-Mart has good selection and good prices, they’ll keep shopping.”

But Rice said Wal-Mart was right to respond to its detractors.

“Any time you don’t answer [criticism], you’re going to suffer damage,” Rice said, noting Wal-Mart often has let its critics speak and not mounted a defence.

“This will have a positive effect.”

Shares of Wal-Mart Stores fell 44 cents to $53,64 on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, when most stocks were pressured by higher oil prices and concerns over the economy. - Sapa-AP

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