Monday, May 7, 2007

The Sopranos Hit Wal-Mart

One of my pet theorems about retailing is that the success of a company often can be gauged not only by how the culture at large perceives it, but more importantly, by how those who influence popular culture perceive it.

For years Kmart bore the brunt of ridicule for its Blue Light specials and “polyester palace” notoriety. “Attention Kmart shoppers” became a comic catch phrase. Kmart kept its doormat location in the American culture long after it had been displaced by Wal-Mart as the largest discount retailer.

Why? Because, my theorem explains, the comics and screenwriters who wrote the jokes and movie scripts, such as Rain Main, that captivated America during the 1980s and 1990s grew up in the 1970s, the decade when Kmart was the only national discount chain. Their only national, retail point of reference was Kmart, so the jokes flowed (not that they weren’t warranted, but that’s another story).

Fast forward to the 21st century—it is now Wal-Mart that must face the music, or the stinging barb, not so much because it does anything so radically different than other retailers but because its size makes it a larger-than-life target (pun intended). Sunday night’s episode of The Sopranos on HBO provided another case in point.

Tony Soprano and his minions make part of their living boosting product from the shipping terminals along the New Jersey waterfront. They aren’t fans of heightened federal scrutiny of imported cargo. So, as one of Tony’s capos explained, Wal-Mart was making their hijacking job easier by lobbying against inspections of every container that comes into port.

Wal-Mart, obviously, is not the only retailer that has expressed concern about federal intervention in the free flow of goods through the supply chain. But few if any other retailers would get the recognition factor Wal-Mart brings to a script. It was just a quick, throwaway line, but like the single drop of water that lands on a torture victim’s head, the cumulative impact of repeated denigrations of Wal-Mart’s character can have lasting, insidious results.

— Murray Forseter

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