Feb 14, 2019

Walmart, the anti-Amazon

Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Erica Pandey/Axios

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In the 1980s, Walmart was the archvillain of capitalism: the ruthless killer of main streets and mom-and-pops, outrageously profitable and, by all appearances, unstoppable. Now, the 57-year-old retailer has a new role in American society: the anti-Amazon.

What's happening: Amid a decade-long era of heady corporate profits, vast numbers of workers feel untethered, distrustful and without a sense of belonging and dignity. Amazon, like the rest of Big Tech, is being swept up in this crisis of faith, villainized for its very bigness.

  • In many ways, Amazon is quickly becoming the new Walmart — demonized for killing malls, bookstores and toy shops, and feared by industry after industry for the off chance it may decide to swallow up yet another business.
  • In New York, as we reported yesterday, Amazon is the target of a massive campaign accusing it of greed for the $3 billion in breaks it has received to build a new headquarters employing some 25,000 high-paid workers.

Walmart — at least in rhetoric — is attempting to move into the breach. Out of sheer necessity to survive the Amazon juggernaut's retail onslaught, it is casting itself as the foil.

  • Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

The rebrand has its skeptics: Louis Hyman, a historian of capitalism at Cornell University, tells Axios: “I’m sure Walmart wants to position itself as a small-town business, but that’s just not true. Walmart is still a 500-pound gorilla.”

  • With $500 billion in revenue last year, Walmart remains by far the biggest company by sales in the U.S., and is no less ruthless than it ever was, Hyman said.
  • Its own e-commerce business is ballooning every quarter.

Yet Walmart's rebranding appears to have traction: With a network of some 4,700 stores that are within 10 miles of 90% of Americans, Walmart is perhaps better positioned than any government agency, think tank or company to take the economic pulse of the U.S. It is using that on-the-ground presence to position itself as a champion of distressed and alienated America.

On stage at a conference in Bentonville today, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon sat across from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who asked him the ultimate question: How will you stay relevant?

McMillon said: "There’s a strong and heavy dose of humanity in it. ... A differentiating characteristic of our company will be that we still care about people, and they know it."

  • Walmart, McMillon said, wants to be the most trusted company in the U.S.
  • When people walk into a Walmart, he wants them to feel, "I belong here."
  • His themes squarely attack weaknesses that economists have criticized in the current U.S. system: that Americans feel less and less a sense of esteem and belonging, whether it's to a job or community.

Go deeper

In photos: Deadly Storm Dennis lashes U.K., Ireland and western France

A family is rescued from a property in Nantgarw, Wales, on Sunday. The storm comes a week after the U.K. was battered by storm Ciara, which killed two people, per the BBC. Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Storm Dennis continued to pummel parts of England, Wales and Ireland over Sunday night with heavy rain after battering Northern Ireland and Scotland, per the official British weather agency the Met Office.

Why it matters: It's the second-strongest nontropical storm ever recorded in the North Atlantic Ocean, with its hurricane-force winds and heavy rains that caused widespread flooding across the U.K., the Washington Post notes. Police in Wales confirmed Sunday they found the body of a man who fell into a river as the storm lashed Ystradgynlais.

See photosArrow47 mins ago - World

Sanders accuses Bloomberg of trying to "buy" the 2020 election

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg. Photos: Drew Angerer; Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders tore into 2020 rival Michael Bloomberg at a Las Vegas campaign event Saturday, saying the billionaire and former New York mayor is trying to "buy the presidency" by paying millions of dollars in advertising.

Why it matters: Bloomberg has surged in national polling recently, having poured millions of dollars into campaign ads largely targeting Trump. His candidacy has become an obvious foil for Sanders, whose grassroots campaign railing against billionaires and the establishment has vaulted him to front-runner status.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus cases rise, as more Americans on cruise confirmed ill

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's NHC; Note: China refers to mainland China and the Diamond Princess is the cruise ship offshore Yokohama, Japan. Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

A U.S. public health official confirms more than 40 Americans on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan have coronavirus, while the remaining U.S. citizens without symptoms are being evacuated.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 1,770 people and infected almost 70,000 others. Most cases and all but five of the deaths have occurred in mainland China. Taiwan confirmed its first death on Sunday, per multiple reports, in a 61-year-old man with underlying health conditions. Health officials were investigating how he became ill.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 5 hours ago - Health