Wal-Mart had caught the China bug. In a speech to business schools in the early '90s, David Glass, who succeeded Sam Walton as CEO, advised students to learn Mandarin Chinese. In regional meetings, Glass told Wal-Mart execs that if they didn't think internationally, they were working for the wrong company. "The only reason [manufacturing] moved from Taiwan was China's low level of wages," said one early Wal-Mart Hong Kong buyer. "We didn't have any trouble in China, because the Taiwanese went into China and built up the factories. We were dealing with the same people."
Working through PREL's Asian suppliers, Wal-Mart buyers became actively involved in developing products, and educating the mainland Chinese on how to make goods that would sell in America. "You'd go into a factory in Taiwan that's making men's shirts. You see what works," the Wal-Mart buyer recalled. "And then you go into China and tell a factory in China, 'This is why we're not buying from you.' Chinese people are not dumb. They're tenacious. They know they need to learn very quickly."
In 1992, with Wal-Mart clocking in at a 40 percent annual growth rate, Goldman Sachs analyst George Strachan released a study concluding that Wal-Mart was in the midst of "a major strategic merchandising revolution … breaking from a history of almost exclusive commitment to [U.S.] national-brand products, expanding and improving its private-label offerings … and marketing them more aggressively than ever before."
By lining its shelves with its own in-house brands, Wal-Mart began competing directly, on its own shelves, with its national, household brand-name suppliers. "It makes them more efficient," argues Ray Bracy, Wal-Mart's vice president of international corporate affairs. "I suppose you could suggest that they would like to not have that competition. But it makes them better."
The development of Wal-Mart's house brands proved to be a watershed. Consumer surveys had established that Americans cared less and less about buying national brands: Low price trumped brand loyalty. In the period following Sam Walton's death, when Wal-Mart's sales slowed and its stock price began to stagnate, this consumer trend freed the company to ramp up the production of its house brands through unbranded suppliers in China, who now had privileged access to Wal-Mart's 3,500 stores across America. The result was that Wal-Mart became its own de facto manufacturer, developing and designing products according to the taste of its customers, as analyzed by Wal-Mart's supercomputer. Profits soared.
Privately, long-time U.S. suppliers expressed dismay. "They invaded our core business model," said one apparel maker, requesting that his name be withheld. "Wal-Mart seems intent on managing the total product life cycle." If the competitive pressures of Wal-Mart's store brands continue, he said he would close his American factories, abandon his own brand, and try to solicit Wal-Mart's private label business in China. "We call it 'the race to the bottom,'" he asserted. "It's sad because I see that productivity increases [in America] are still possible through automation. There's room for improved efficiency. But it's impossible [to stay here] with retailers going for cheap Chinese labor."
By now, many American manufacturers, such as the apparel supplier, have little choice but to redefine themselves as "branded distributors" for overseas goods. In other words, instead of making their own products, they use their own brand names to market Chinese-made goods to retailers. They eke out profits by outsourcing production and marketing that production. The process is virtually the final step in the surrender to what Duke University Professor Gary Gereffi calls the Wal-Mart-China "joint venture."
For several years, Wal-Mart has been the single largest U.S. importer of Chinese consumer goods, surpassing the trade volume of entire countries, such as Germany and Russia. Global sourcing is now fully integrated into the company's operations -- giving Wal-Mart enormous leverage worldwide. Foreign products account for nearly all of Wal-Mart's trumpeted low opening price point goods.
During regularly scheduled conference calls with Wall Street analysts, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart CEO since 2000, touts global sourcing as the key to increasing company profits and continuing its expansion.
"No one can compete with China. Such efficiency, such manpower," said Frank Yuan, the former middleman who did business with Wal-Mart, and who now heads an international apparel trade show. "If you look at [Wal-Mart's] shoes or housewares, 80 or 90 percent is coming out of China. And apparel is not as big as it should be." After U.S. quotas on textile imports expire on Jan. 1, 2005, Yuan expects imports from China to rise to 80 percent of the apparel market.