This NYT piece about Wal-Mart’s failure to fit in culturally in various of its international conquest states is just fascinating. Apparently wanting everything available in one place, at the lowest possible price, in huge impersonal stores is not a fundamental feature of human nature, but a cultural artifact. In Germany, for instance, the company is just giving up entirely.

Trolling through the article, I pulled out these nifty tidbits:

In Germany, Wal-Mart stopped requiring sales clerks to smile at customers — a practice that some male shoppers interpreted as flirting — and scrapped the morning Wal-Mart chant by staff members.

… it never established comfortable relations with its German labor unions.

"They didn’t understand that in Germany, companies and unions are closely connected," Mr. Poschmann said. "Bentonville didn’t want to have anything to do with unions. They thought we were communists."

Compounding the problem, Wal-Mart shut down the headquarters of one of the [German] chains [it had purchased], infuriating employees who opted to quit rather than move. Such a decision would have been routine in the United States, where Ms. Keck said, "moving is a big part of the Wal-Mart culture." In Germany, she said, it prompted an exodus of talented executives.

And that was just in Germany. This is good too:

In Korea, Wal-Mart’s stores originally had taller racks than those of local rivals, forcing shoppers to use ladders or stretch for items on high shelves. Wal-Mart’s utilitarian design — ceilings with exposed pipes — put off shoppers used to the decorated ceilings in E-Mart stores.

Beyond the ambience, Wal-Mart’s shoes-to-sausage product line does not suit the shopping habits of many non-American shoppers. They prefer daily outings to a variety of local stores that specialize in groceries, drugs or household goods, rather than shopping once a week at Wal-Mart.

"They have stacks of goods in boxes," said Lee Jin Sook, 46, a housewife sitting on a subway in Seoul. "That may be good for some American housewives who drive out in their own cars." But Koreans, she said, prefer smaller packages: "Why would you buy a box of shampoo bottles?"

Why indeed?

What this shows, I think, is that the big-box mega-retailer model is not some sort of Inevitability of Late Stage Capitalism or whatnot. It’s a function of particular socioeconomic circumstances and particular cultural tastes, and both those can be changed.