I'm Thankful for Retailers Turning Commerce Into the Moral Equivalent of War
By Art Carden
First, I want to thank everyone who submitted requests for my last few posts before my EconLog guest stint ends. I’ll answer as many as I can and schedule a series of posts for the next few days.
Second, Happy Thanksgiving.
Third, my co-author Charles Courtemanche and I are writing a chapter on General Merchandisers like Walmart and Costco for an edited volume. In reading books about iconic retailers like Sam Walton and Sol Price (who is widely credited with inventing the warehouse club format and from whom Walton got many of his best ideas), I’m struck by their emphases on creating corporate cultures. In Walmart’s case, they’ve done this with rock concert-style shareholders’ meetings and a company cheer–a tactic later adopted by AutoZone. Price was apparently a bit more reserved, but it seems clear that he also valued buy-in for employees of his FedMart and later Price Club stores.
In a way, they were making commerce what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.” They turned previously-disdained jobs in retailing into ventures that allowed someone to be part of something bigger than himself or herself for the benefit of others. Instead of crushing the Other for the benefit of the Tribe, however, employees at Walmart and FedMart and AutoZone and other retail innovators of the late twentieth century furthered the Tribe’s goals through service–products people want at good prices–rather than domination.
Here’s a link to my Walmart papers (that needs updating). Here’s one of my favorite lectures, by Steve Davies. He points out that history is usually told as a story of how people use force. The “heroes” are the violent; Davies argues, however, that we should better esteem the peaceful and the innovative.