This Is Not an Apology (Editorial)

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is obviously the largest Arkansas business, and it is almost impossible to imagine Arkansas’ economy without the Bentonville Behemoth. But it is not the job of Arkansas Business to serve as its apologist or cheerleader, merely to observe and report.

Last week, Wal-Mart announced the “surprise” promotions of 25,000 employees of stores in the U.S. The employees, mostly hourly, are being giving different jobs — some even in management positions on the store level — and will get raises and additional responsibility. Raises and new responsibility certainly fit our definition of promotions.

The announcement comes as Wal-Mart is under increasing pressure to improve the working conditions — especially salaries and benefits — of its employees, and it’s easy to dismiss the move as a cynical PR move. And it may be.

But Wal-Mart has been making incremental changes that suggest that squeezing every last dollar out of expenses may no longer be Job One. The company announced in September that it would move 35,000 temporary workers to part-time status and another 35,000 workers from part-time to full-time status.

As we reported in some detail last week, Wal-Mart has extended health insurance benefits to domestic partners. While that has mainly gotten attention because of the political implication of benefits for same-sex partners, the fact that it is a voluntary new employee-related expense should not be overlooked. Nor can the additional expense of the company’s renewed emphasis on products “Made in the U.S.A” be dismissed.

This is not an apology for Wal-Mart nor a fawning press release, merely an observation: While maintaining most of the gains its stock price has made during the past year, Wal-Mart appears to be gradually but deliberately working on the parts of its business plan that have drawn the most criticism.