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Two interesting stories about Wal-Mart this morning:

• The New York Times reports this morning that “Wal-Mart has quietly introduced an ambitious program in the United States — in equal parts self-help class, corporate retreat and tent revival — that tries to turn its 1.3 million workers into a model for its 200 million customers on issues ranging from personal health to the environment.

“The program, to be announced today, tests the assumption, if not conventional wisdom, that environmentalism and fitness are luxuries of the well-off, inaccessible to a vast number of the nation’s working class because of hectic schedules, stretched budgets and bad habits.”

Among the efforts being pushed by Wal-Mart are how to save energy, how to stop smoking, and how to get more exercise.

“The program, called the personal sustainability project, is voluntary, but it is proving popular, with roughly 50 percent of employees in a dozen states signing up so far. The company may eventually extend the program to its workers around the world,” the Times reports. “For Wal-Mart, the payoff could be significant: if it succeeds, the initiative could improve employee morale, and therefore productivity; reduce health care spending on a work force with higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than the general public; and improve Wal-Mart’s reputation with the image-conscious consumers it is courting with costlier merchandise.

“Over the next two years, Wal-Mart will ask all employees to adopt a pledge to improve their bodies, their families or their planet. And behind that seemingly New Age aspiration is an estimated $30 million commitment, making the program one of the most expensive of its kind.”

• The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Wal-Mart has apologized to shareholder groups that it defined as “potential threats” when they submitted proxy petitions and on which the retailer may have conducted extensive surveillance and research.

The extent of Wal-Mart’s surveillance activities – on employees, critics and shareholders – was detailed yesterday in a Journal article.
KC's View:
We are tempted to describe Wal-Mart’s various attitudes and actions as utter schizophrenia, but maybe that’s not quite fair. After all, who are we to say that a company can’t be paranoid about its enemies and also interested in the personal sustainability of its employees.

We’re also tempted to suggest that Wal-Mart employees had better be careful…because if they don’t live up to the retailer’s personal sustainability goals, it seems likely that Wal-Mart management is going to know it. Big Brother is watching.

But we won’t. it’d be too easy.

The bottom line, we suppose, is that Wal-Mart is resolutely, relentlessly and ruthlessly devoted to productivity – no matter how it gets there. If that means cutting its critics off at the knees, so be it. If that means getting employees to stop smoking, or cutting down on energy costs in its stores, that’s fine, too.

As it happens, there really is no surprise here. The bottom line, for Wal-Mart, is the bottom line.

Go figure.