How Wal-Mart Helps the Poor

Before campaigning to shut down Wal-Mart for paying low wages, progressives might remember that poor people are buyers as well as workers. From the latest issue of the Journal of Urban Economics (the link is to the working paper version):

Selling a cheaper mousetrap: Wal-Mart’s effect on retail prices
Emek Basker
I quantify the price effect of a low-cost entrant on retail prices using a case-study approach. I consider the effect of Wal-Mart entry on average city-level prices of various consumer goods by exploiting variation in the timing of store entry. The analysis combines two unique data sets, one containing opening dates of all US Wal-Mart stores and the other containing average quarterly retail prices of several narrowly-defined commonly-purchased goods over the period 1982–2002. I focus on 10 specific items likely to be sold at Wal-Mart stores and analyze their price dynamics in 165 US cities before and after Wal-Mart entry. An instrumental-variables specification corrects for measurement error in Wal-Mart entry dates. I find robust price effects for several products, including shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry detergent; magnitudes vary by product and specification, but generally range from 1.5–3% in the short run to four times as much in the long run.

I don’t have much time for Wal-Mart’s union-busting practices, but it’s important to also remember that reducing prices by 2% in the short-run, and 8% in the long-run, matters a lot to low-income families.

Downunder, Australian Labor has long known that cutting prices helps the poor more than the rich, which is why all our major tariff cuts (1973, 1988 and 1991) were implemented by Labor governments. Here’s hoping the party doesn’t go forgetting these simple principles.

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3 Responses to How Wal-Mart Helps the Poor

  1. Robert says:

    The CEO of Wal-Mart is calling for a minimum wage rise.

  2. Philip Gomes says:

    Walmart is so good for the poor, many of whom are their employees.

    In the end it’s allabout the PR.

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Philip, you’re right that many poor Americans are Wal-Mart workers. But poor Wal-Mart consumers probably outweigh poor Wal-Mart workers 10 to 1. I’m not saying that progressives should ignore their appalling labour relations policies (that’s why I linked to their union-bashing activities). But it helps to remember that poor people are buyers and workers.

    Robert, amazing story, thanks for the link. My guess is that the Wal-Mart board is thinking ‘well, most of our employees earn more than the minimum wage anyhow, and of those on the minimum wage, over half are in states where the state minimum wages exceeds the federal minimum wage – so hell, let’s buy ourselves some labour-friendly PR at very little cost’.

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