Editorial: What's good for Wal-Mart

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Wal-Mart means a great deal to consumers. By pressuring suppliers and being obsessed with efficiency, it's lowered the cost of buying and so raised the standard of living. For all that good, its image is bad: a conquering empire mightier than many nations and accountable to none. Wal-Mart needs to attack its reputational problem by being a force for good in the communities it serves.

We can hear protests from Bentonville that community involvement has long been a core value. Wal-Mart certainly runs lots of ads showing good works done by the company and its happy employees. But its reputation has been damaged by bulldozing tactics and questions about how it treats workers.

It's starting to lose. When a city council in California rejected its big box, Wal-Mart tried to stuff the ballot box with a voter referendum-and failed. Los Angeles may ban new supercenters; Chicago politicians wonder what they can demand before letting Wal-Mart in.

Wal-Mart let others (often, unions) define it (basically, a sweatshop with greeters). Yet it has good stories to tell-how efficiency benefits customers, how it creates jobs. Wal-Mart could show key suppliers' sizable employment in towns where it wants to open. It's thrown a bone to some suppliers by allowing small price increases. It's also making good moves such as veering from cookie-cutter building designs to make stores better fit the environs.

But it needs to reset the agenda to demonstrate corporate citizenship. Ronald McDonald Houses do good; the Kresge Foundation (created by Kmart Corp.'s founder) for nearly a century has done good; surely Wal-Mart can do something remarkable on a major issue such as education.

Nemesis Target Corp. has a long history of community involvement and cites that in its 10-K filing as a competitive advantage. Target formally evaluates its CEO in part on community relations and involvement. Let's see Wal-Mart beat Target in this arena. It's in Wal-Mart's self-interest to stop pushing to the limit, to back off, to be good and do good. Wal-Mart has a brain. It needs a heart.

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