Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Tres Hermanos v. Walmart

Okay, this is not a culture clash in the typical sense it occurs in these postings. It is more observational. For those readers who Americans, you might recall the running commentary about how Walmarts are like trees -- they are popping up everywhere (ironically, they pop up in place of trees, so the trees themselves are going away). In Juarez, I don't know about the rest of Mexico, this was Tres Hermanos. But here's the thing, Tres Hermanos is a chain of shoe stores. That's what they sell: shoes. Now, maybe I am just not that into shoes (okay, I admit I am not), but why in the world in downtown centro Juarez would there be 7 separate Tres Hermanos stores in a 2.5 block area? Seriously. And not one carried the same shoes we saw in the others. I know because in the first store, I found the shoes I liked and wanted but they did not take credit cards, so we went around to all the others looking for the shoes. None had them. We tried other shoes but none fit or looked the same. Finally, we had to actually organize a trade between two separate franchise stores to buy them at one with a credit card machine. A lot of effort for shoes.

But leather is cheap in Mexico. Cheaper in price than the U.S., not cheaper in quality. You can find low quality, of course, as you can with anything anywhere. But you can get leather items of high quality for 50% or less of the U.S. price just by crossing the border into Juarez, and on my November-December trip, I was determined to take advantage of that opportunity. I got the shoes, but it was a lot of work.

Even though Walmarts are prevalent here, I had never seen anything like 7 franchises of the same store in such a small area. And I looked to see if other franchises popped up the same way and so far did not find one. It is an area where tourists go to shop, and leather is a big item, so I can understand why they want to capitalize on it, but how can you compete against so many feel franchisees, and even more, who knew there were so many varieties of shoes that every franchise could carry different ones. I am sure there were a few carry overs I didn't catch, but largely they were different. Both Wilbert, my Mexican host, and I noticed and laughed about it. It was Imelda Marcos Disneyland.

Anyway, I wanted to comment on that because it is interesting as I travel to see how much U.S. style merchandising and commercial activity is permeating the outside world. I have commented here before how disappointed I was to see so many American restaurants transplanted across the border, because when I go to another country, I like to feel like I am in a different country. And seeing Applebees, Dennys, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Wendys, etc. all over the place just detracts from that. But even more than my personal desire to escape into a foreign landscape, I am wondering if these are things that are deserving of export. Is this really what we want to say about our culture to foreigners? Does this represent the culinary best the country has to offer? Is Walmart or Sam's Club so great that it really needs to infect another culture? I shop there, I admit, but that is more about necessity than it is about being a fan.

I don't know what degree the native stores try to emulate U.S. stores, but they sure have grown more and more to resemble them. From store layout, to advertising, to product lines, etc., I see such a familiar pattern. And I wonder if they just do it because it is good business or if they do it because it works here. I suspect some of both. But I have not been to business school. I don't know if someone is teaching at Mexican Universities classes on marketing the McDonald's way. I do know that some brands such as Nike and others sign contracts with those who sell them requiring certain kinds of displays and store setups. And so that could play a role in this phenomenon. But I am not one to believe we have it all figured out so everything should be our way. Those who do are arrogant and ignorant in my opinion. But what concerns me is that perhaps others from foreign countries buy into that. I think that would be a shame.

Anyone who is honest and reads on the topic will easily determine that U.S. economic might dominates the world on a number of levels. The resentment towards us by foreigners is not just Bush and Iraq related as some Democrats might love to have you believe. There are other deeper, underlying causes. And it is something every U.S. citizen should be aware of and consider. For example, I am becoming more and more careful about using the term Americans. I did not realize until I travelled in Latin America how much we U.S. citizens are resented for our arrogant presumptuousness of adopting this term to describe ourselves. Those who live in Latin America and South America are not at all happy when we exclude them from the concept of being American, because they live in America, too. So I am learning to change how I think about this term and, in the process, myself. It is hard to change the habit, and I do still use it when it seems appropriate in context, but I also try and be sensitive about how I use it, when, and with whom. U.S. commercial power is another issue.

We have long acted like Colonial powers with our money, even in countries who are not our colonies, never were, and never will be. Independent U.S. companies and the government acct on their own or conspiring together to force various concessions or demands upon foreign governments and private businesses all to get what they want and have an advantage. An advantage that most of the time we do not deserve. It is not right that we should think because we have money, power, and success, that we have an entitlement. And yet this is how we behave commercially throughout the world. It is so pervasive that strong companies in the U.S. do it to each other. Look at how Walmart uses its buying power to negotiate with suppliers, etc. This has been discussed a lot in the news. Walmart can afford to sell items less than their competitors, thus keeping their competitive advantage, primarily through this practice. And it also helps them keep unions out of their workforce. So Walmart makes advantages for themselves at the cost of suppliers and their own workers. Now, they are transplanting this around the globe. I don't know about you, but I am so proud..............NOT!

But Walmart is just an example. Thousands of companies do this every day, including biggies like Bank of America, Texaco, IBM, you name it. It is our way of thinking about business, and it is unfair and offensive to other countries. If you were on the receiving end of this, you would resent it as well, and I think that we need to recognize that and make some changes. Our foreign policy needs to change, too, of course, but it all combines as one package -- the image of "America" around the world. And that image is not pretty anymore. It is not respected or admired or desired as it once was. And it is not seen as glossy and shiny either. Instead it is dull, oppressive, and pompous.

I don't hold the U.S. President solely responsible for changing things, because the government cannot dictate how private businesses or even tourists conduct themselves. We are all responsible, and until we take this responsibility seriously and stop acting as if we are God's gift to the world, we will continue to see growing problems in our international relations, including safety issues for "Americans" around the world. I, for one, loving to travel as I do, find that greatly disconcerting. Perhaps I am the only one. But I hope not.

For what it's worth...

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