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A Wal-Mart store usually dominates the landscape around it, both by its sheer size and by its no-frills simplicity. According to two new books, this is also how Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., dominates the American economic landscape. Other companies have been affected not just by Wal-Mart’s position as the country’s biggest retailer, but by its insistence on obtaining the lowest-possible prices from its suppliers. As a result, even businesses that are giants in their respective industries have risen to greater prominence or crumbled into bankruptcy, depending on how they’ve dealt with the Bentonville, Arkansas � based company. Despite their agreement on Wal-Mart’s importance, Fast Company senior editor Charles Fishman and Business Week writer Anthony Bianco come to different conclusions about the company in their recently published books. Fishman aims for a balanced view in The Wal-Mart Effect, while Bianco � as can be told from his title � goes for a less temperate approach in The Bully of Bentonville. But objectivity, it turns out, isn’t always a cardinal virtue. Bianco may have an ax to grind, but his blade is well-sharpened, and he knows where to aim it. Fishman struggles mightily to be fair, but his book lacks focus and fails to offer a genuine perspective on Wal-Mart’s pros or cons. Still, Fishman is a fine interviewer and a lively writer, and some of the scenes he sketches are telling. For example, there’s the executive who came to Wal-Mart’s headquarters for a conference � and found that, to cut costs, the man he was meeting with had furnished his office with unsold lawn furniture. Fishman perfectly captures the executive’s unease as he attempts to appear professional while reclining on a plastic chaise longue. But too many of the anecdotes in The Wal-Mart Effect seem irrelevant, since they’re about companies that either have an atypical relationship with the retailer or else no longer do business with it. Fishman ultimately concludes that people must change the way they think about Wal-Mart because its scale is so vast that it demands an entirely new kind of scrutiny. Though this would make a splendid beginning for a book on Wal-Mart, it’s not very satisfying as an ending. The Bully of Bentonville, on the other hand, begins with a chapter called “The Case Against Wal-Mart.” Bianco’s thesis: Rather than developing new economic opportunities, Wal-Mart generates both jobs and profits by siphoning them from other companies. As Wal-Mart grows ever larger, its ability to dominate the labor market and the retail sector also grows, and its more questionable practices (such as an extreme antiunion stance and strong-arm tactics with its suppliers) end up creating burdens that the rest of corporate America has to bear. In addition to this provocative take, Bianco provides a history of Wal-Mart beginning with founder Sam Walton’s childhood, as well as a theory that the company’s spartan culture is an extension of the frugality characteristic of the Arkansas Ozarks. Many former employees, from high-ranking executives to checkout clerks, weigh in with a wide range of perspectives. Several of the company’s critics are also interviewed, and they too speak with a variety of voices: labor organizers, religious leaders, and business competitors. The Bully of Bentonville is roughly the same length as The Wal-Mart Effect, but it feels twice as substantial. Bianco sometimes seems too strident in his condemnation, and he lacks the verbal flair and wit of Fishman (who, for instance, finds a Wal-Mart store selling marked-down copies of Sam Walton’s autobiography). But Bianco amasses his evidence, gives a comprehensive history of Wal-Mart’s founding and expansion, and takes a broad view of the company’s impact. As thorough as Bianco is, however, not even his investigations could uncover much of the data that he needs to prove his case to someone who doesn’t share his biases. That’s because Wal-Mart keeps a lot of information (such as certain sales figures) secret. The most comprehensive and objective view of Wal-Mart has probably yet to be written. Until then, Charles Fishman poses some interesting questions about the company, and Anthony Bianco answers many of them. The Wal-Mart Effect By Charles Fishman (The Penguin Press, 304 pages) The Bully of Bentonville By Anthony Bianco (Doubleday, 336 pages) Amy Vincent is a former staff reporter at The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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