HARTFORD, Conn. – Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has always competed with Main Street clothing and hardware stores, but this spring, the retail giant may be going head-to-head with specialty stores that sell handmade arts and crafts.
Wal-Mart will begin selling one-of-a-kind handicrafts made by women artisans in developing countries online at Walmart.com.
Wal-Mart isn’t talking prices yet, but by 2016 it plans to offer up to 500 items by 20,000 women artisans in two-dozen countries. Among this spring’s offerings: dresses from Kenya and jewelry from Guatemala and Thailand.
Wal-Mart’s announcement has startled many and raised the concerns of importers and retailers who say they follow the precepts of fair trade, including Ten Thousand Villages, the nation’s oldest and largest fair trade retailer.
“It certainly does seem in sharp contrast to Wal-Mart’s typical business model,” said Michele Loeper, a spokeswoman at the Akron, Pa., headquarters for Ten Thousand Villages.
“I’m not sure what their model will be,” Loeper said. “From our point of view we work with the artisans to identify a fair income, one that will benefit them and be sustainable. We’re the anti-Wal-Mart, a nonprofit company dedicated to providing sustainable income opportunities to artisans in developing countries.”
Wal-Mart said it plans to procure some products from Ethical Fashion Africa and Full Circle Exchange, a program within the International Trade Centre. ITC is a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
The e-commerce site is an “ideal venue” for artisans who “may not have the size or scale to sell in our brick-and-mortar stores,” and giving them “the benefit of the company’s knowledge about customers, packaging and promotions,” Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, said.
Nelson Lichtenstein, author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business,” questioned Wal-Mart’s motives.
“They’ll make some money with this, but I suspect that’s not the main point – it’s public relations to soften its image among urban liberals,” Lichtenstein said.
Handcrafted items typically appeal to a higher income shopper, a demographic Wal-Mart wants to attract, he said. But Lichtenstein said he wonders if Wal-Mart, which has a reputation for “squeezing” its suppliers – demanding higher volumes and lower prices – may also end up pressuring artisans to step up production, “eroding the handmade aspect.”