July 1, 2008

Letters from Beijing: July 1st

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It’s not your Ithaca Wal-Mart. Though the form is more or less the same with the happy smiley face promising “always low prices” (though in Chinese it only promises “always fair prices”), the blue-aproned sales associates and the general brightness and cleanliness of the store (which is not a given among all the retail establishments in the Chinese capital). The real differences lie in what’s being sold. Unlike Wal-Marts in the U.S., Wal-Marts that I’ve seen in China tend to emphasize the food they sell. And as far as food, I doubt you’d see the same retail strategy in the U.S, where you’d be hard pressed to find slabs of meat lying on ice, being butchered up right before your eyes. And when I say on ice, I don’t mean behind the meat counter, but right in the middle of store. Add that to the seafood on ice (including whole fish) lying on the table next to it, it’s clear that this is not your run-of-the-mill American Wal-Mart, but instead a Wal-Mart with Chinese characteristics. [img_assist|nid=30788|title=Always fair prices in China’s Wal-Mart.|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In the United States, it’s often fashionable to bemoan Wal-Mart and emphasize the chain’s negative aspects; including everything from the exploitation of third world labor to its effect on local retailers. The packed Beijing Wal-Marts give a very different impression of the monolithic retailer than one you would find among your average Ithacan. Instead of the negatives, the positives are laid out before your eyes. There’s the luxury of buying food and other goods at cheap (or fair) prices with a relative guarantee of cleanliness and safety. After walking through a street market, it is hard to underemphasize the importance of relative sanitation. And if that appeal forces competitors to adapt or go out of business, then I think that is progress that helps the average consumer.