Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wal-Mart has bid to lift economy

More U.S. products; hiring many veterans

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NEW YORK -- Why wait on Washington when there's Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer and the biggest private employer in the U.S. with 1.4 million workers, said Tuesday it is rolling out a three-part plan to help jump-start the sluggish U.S. economy.

The plan includes hiring more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years, spending $50 billion to buy more American-made merchandise in the next 10 years and helping its part-time workers move into full-time positions.

The move comes as Wal-Mart tries to bolster its image amid widespread criticism. The company, which often is criticized for its low-paying jobs and buying habits in the U.S., recently faced allegations it made bribes in Mexico, as well as calls for better safety oversight after a deadly fire at a Bangladesh factory that supplies its clothes.

But Wal-Mart said its initiatives are unrelated to those events, but rather are meant to highlight what companies can contribute to the economy.

"We've developed a national paralysis that's driven by all of us waiting for someone else to do something," Bill Simon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart's U.S. business, said Tuesday at an annual retail industry convention in New York. "The beauty of the private sector is that we don't have to win an election, convince Congress or pass a bill to do what we think is right. We can simply move forward, doing what we know is right."

Any changes Wal-Mart makes to its hiring and buying practices garner lots of attention because of the company's massive size. Indeed, with $444 billion in annual revenue, if Wal-Mart were a country, it would rank among the largest economies in the world. But critics say the changes amount to a drop in the bucket for the behemoth, and they question whether Wal-Mart's initiatives will have a major impact on the U.S. economy.

"They sound impressive when you first hear the numbers, but when you begin to look at them, it's a very tiny scale that doesn't add up to much," said Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a non-profit national research organization.

The centerpiece of Wal-Mart's plan is a pledge to hire veterans, many of whom have had a particularly difficult time finding work after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. The unemployment rate for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan stood at 10.8 per cent in December, compared with the overall unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent.

Wal-Mart said it plans to hire every veteran who wants a job and has been honourably discharged in the first 12 months off active duty. The program, which will start on Memorial Day, will include jobs mostly in Wal-Mart's stores or in its Sam's Club locations. Some will be at its headquarters, based in Bentonville, Ark., or the company's distribution centres.

Dave Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said Wal-Mart hasn't worked out the details, but it will "match up the veterans' experience and qualifications."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2013 B5

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