Wal-mart's announcement this week that it is developing a new store prototype that's designed to be 30 percent more efficient than today's stores, and 50% more efficient longer term, is a new chapter in the big retailer waking up to its image problem. And it looks smart. Besides PR, of course, it looks smart bcause with energy prices what they are, the more efficiently the stores run the more money they'll save.
The announcement was made in advance of a visit by former vice president Al Gore, who has re-ignited his political career by being a new, credible and compelling voice about the ills and dangers of global warming. Take that Laura Ingraham! Big Al's argument has more traction and credibility than the one you babble.
Walmart, which has been on a tear of promoting organic foods and clothing, and now environmental concern, is doing all the right things whether you agree with its motives or larger business model or not. Wal-mart, says an executive at the company, has been going to school big-time on how General Electric turned around its image from one dominated by Hudson River PCBs to one of "Eco-imagination."
The question both GE and Wal-mart are asking, though, is how much does an image makeover contribute to stock price and shareholder value? Both companies' have been advised that these moves are necessary to get more investors interested in the companies and to hedge against social backlash. But both their stocks have been moribund despite the PR successes.
Nevertheless, the strategy is smart. Even while Wal-mart fights its fights in communities that do not want the big stores big-footing the local merchant class, it's clearly making headway with its image by moving responsibly leftward toward organics and environmentalism. I wonder if it is interested in buying Whole Foods Markets? Or maybe bank-rolling Michael Moore's next movie? Or sending money to Gore's bid for the White House. That'll turn some blue-state heads.