For Wal-Mart Stores Inc., even trying to make new friends is controversial.
The Bentonville, Ark.-based company is joining the corporate advisory council of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. But not all of its usual supporters -- nor some gay activists -- welcomed the announcement.
As the world’s largest retailer tries to reach out to more diverse shoppers in its bid to keep expanding beyond its rural and Southern roots, it risks alienating loyal and long-standing patrons. It’s a predicament common to any business that tries to grow or change with the times.
“Wal-Mart is figuring out how to make itself welcome and amenable in every corner of America’s pluralistic society,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and editor of the book “Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism.” “Lots of companies once thought of as conservative culturally have made their peace with gay and lesbian rights. It’s become a standard corporate thing.”
But Randy Sharp of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn. said he and others had stopped shopping at Wal-Mart because of its shift from a “pro-family” stance.
“Up until a year and a half ago, the AFA applauded Wal-Mart for their pro-family policies, but now it seems Wal-Mart has decided to push aside that legacy left by [founder] Sam Walton and joined those who look at the bottom line and stock prices,” Sharp told the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas.
Wal-Mart, which will pay the chamber $25,000 annually, has agreed to conduct workshops for gay and lesbian business owners on how to break into the Wal-Mart supplier ranks, said Justin Nelson, the 4-year-old chamber’s president and co-founder.
“One of the things that this partnership brings is the realization that this company has said it wants to do the right thing and be a good corporate citizen in the LGBT community,” Nelson said, referring to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. “Same-sex couples are everywhere. So it’s not just a coastal issue. This partnership has started a dialogue across America that is very good for equality.”
Company spokesman Bob McAdam said Wal-Mart had worked with other gay and lesbian organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Wal-Mart, with more than 3,900 U.S. stores, has been working to broaden its appeal as it tries to expand into new territories, particularly in the more liberal and union-friendly urban and coastal regions.
That has meant alliances with environmental organizations and ethnic groups as well as a more relaxed stance on product offerings, which in the past had excluded items deemed inappropriate for families.
In 2002, Wal-Mart pulled a pregnant Barbie doll off shelves because of complaints that it promoted teen pregnancy, although the doll wore a wedding ring. In 2003, it acquiesced to the American Family Assn.'s demand that it stop carrying racy magazines by halting sales of FHM, Maxim and Stuff and placing plastic shields over Cosmopolitan, Glamour and others.
But this year the company bucked the AFA and other conservative groups by carrying the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” a love story about two cowboys in Wyoming.
Wal-Mart’s British subsidiary, Asda, began carrying sex aids last year as well as products aimed at same-sex couples, including greeting cards congratulating “Mrs. & Mrs.” to coincide with that country’s legalization of same-sex unions.
And in December, the company held an internal seminar, “Why Market to Gay America?” That drew the ire of the American Family Assn., which has urged a boycott of Ford Motor Co. because of the company’s ads in gay publications.
Still, as with many issues involving Wal-Mart, the company is taking it from all sides.
Just as black leaders have disagreed about whether to work with the company because of what critics call miserly pay and benefits, not all gay and lesbian groups believe the alliance is positive.
“Our community is a smart community, and we can see a shameless marketing opportunity when it comes,” said Jeremy Bishop, program director of Pride at Work, a group within the AFL-CIO that represents gay and lesbian workers.
“For us it’s a matter of social and economic justice, and Wal-Mart has a long record of not treating its employees -- gay or straight -- with equity and dignity.”
Nelson, the chamber president, disagreed.
“If we were to turn our back on Wal-Mart, we would be doing a disservice to those businesses that will benefit by becoming a part of Wal-Mart’s diverse supply chain,” he said.
Wal-Mart’s McAdam said he believed that most customers respected the company’s attempts to be inclusive. But even if some didn’t, he said, Wal-Mart was not going to adjust its policies.
“This company is continuing to grow and evolve, and that is what we’ve always done,” he said. “When we were a small regional company, we could be more narrow-focused. But we are a large company now, and in this competitive environment we have to be welcoming to everyone.”
Wal-Mart’s attempts to appeal to different interest groups might be more palatable to Wall Street than some other changes that critics demand, Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara said.
“It’s easier to open their arms to the enormously divergent aspects of American cultural lifestyle,” he said. “It’s cheaper and easier than trying to satisfy their critics who are looking at their wage and health-benefit policies.”