Strictly Business: Apple, Wal-Mart 2 sides of same coin

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

What do Wal-Mart and Apple have in common?

Both sell products made in China by low-wage workers who in some cases work in harsh conditions.

The similarities pretty much end there. Apple creates and manufactures some of the worlds' most innovative, most sought-after technology devices in the world that have become household names -- iPhones, iPads, and iPods.

Wal-Mart sells products made by others at its nearly 4,000 U.S. stores and 5,700 stores in 26 other countries. Many of those goods fill the basic needs of everyday life, offered at prices that have none of the sticker shock of Apple's wonders of sleek simplicity.

There's one other big difference: Apple lives in the rarefied world of widespread public respect, even love, that few businesses occupy. Wal-Mart is the unloved giant, a business with an image that matches its product lineup -- tolerated by the practical-minded, despised by many who have come to view it as a proxy for all that is bad about American businesses and even the U.S. economy.

It's one company that many big-city mayors don't want in their town. In Portland, Sam Adams led a crusade against Wal-Mart stores (although he's softened his tone of late). It's a company that neighborhood groups fight against in city after city. Yet it's a company that knows how to appeal to consumers like no other by offering low prices for people with little money to spare.

Consider the reaction to Wal-Mart's announcement last week that it would open one of its relatively small "neighborhood markets" at Vancouver Plaza, an aging mall that has been steadily losing its retail tenants. Wal-Mart critics unloaded against the company on The Columbian's website. But Wal-Mart had its local defenders, including Ernie Grindle, who said that he's rarely convinced by his friends' complaints when he asks what they dislike about the store.

Long list of complaints

Of course, the litany of complaints is long: that Wal-Mart offers low pay and sparse benefits; that its arrival spells doom for local businesses; that its market domination squeezes suppliers to the point where they scarcely make a profit. And after getting beat up for years in the court of public opinion, Wal-Mart has learned to play offense. It pitches that it offers more healthy food and locally sourced produce. It touts its $12.93-per-hour average wage, with benefits, well above Washington's minimum of $9.04. It says its buildings are environmentally sensitive.

Apple makes no such public mea culpas. It also reportedly squeezes is suppliers until they bleed. Many of its 30,000 Apple store employees earn about $25,000 a year, The New York Times reported this summer. But no matter. Apple is moving forward with plans for a new store in downtown Portland, with nary a complaint.

Just as Wal-Mart unfairly takes the fall for a collective public unease about retail consolidation and the stunning movement of manufacturing to China, Apple is the undeserving recipient of the public's awe at the advance of technology that has done much to improve our lives.

What we can avoid is framing the world of commerce with Wal-Mart on one side and Apple on the other, when the two companies are worthy of our respect as well as our fear.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.