Truffles and Trash

When the same name crops up many times in different contexts, it’s hard to not experience a frisson — a feeling that, somehow, you were meant to learn something from it. In April, Wal-Mart rose to the top of the Fortune 500, the first service company ever to do so, a staggering achievement for what Fortune reporter Cait Murphy calls “a peddler of cheap shirts and fishing rods.” Commenting on the retailer’s accomplishment, USA Today reported that Wal-Mart and other service firms are “the true face of our changing economic system” (April 18).

This a few days after I had almost worn out the tires of my minivan trying to find a pair of white tennis shorts for my son, ended up at my nearest Wal-Mart, and found out that the closest thing they had to such an item were orange Lycra stretch pants. If a store the size of a football field couldn’t stock such a simple, non-threatening product as the one I was looking for, what, precisely, was the “huge assortment” of merchandise it purported to provide? And to whom? Why is mass taste always taken to mean bad taste?

I was pondering these questions — after shelling out $40 for a pair of white shorts at a pricey sports shop — when I received an unexpected answer to them at this year’s National Conference on Operations & Fulfillment. In a keynote session, futurist Ed Barlow spoke about the urgent need for today’s managers to be versatile, curious, and flexible; to increase their “intellectual capital” regularly; and to go outside their field to learn different and stimulating information. Barlow gave eloquent expression to a renaissance mentality that has been gathering force in corporate life for several years. The business magazine Fast Company, for instance, routinely ranges far afield to provide examples of creative, offbeat, and resourceful thinking, often profiling people as diverse as rock musicians and ER doctors, bungee jumpers and soap salesmen.

What’s notable about this kind of eclecticism is that the best ideas, and the people who embody them, are a mix of highbrow and lowbrow, elite and mass, upscale and low-end, uncommon intelligence and uncommon dullness. Apply this to Wal-Mart, or for that matter to any chain store that spans hundreds of thousands of square feet but never has anything we want at the time we want it, and you might actually offer something for everyone: white shorts and orange stretch pants, Dickens masterworks and Robert James Waller tear-jerkers.

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