Basu: Is it finally time to go back to Wal-Mart?

Could it finally be time to go back to Wal-Mart — or at least go there with a clear conscience?

For years, the low-priced retail giant has held a guilty appeal. Appeal, because where else could you go when the late-night urge for a new bath mat strikes? Guilty because the company has been notorious for underpaying its workers. Workers from a single Wal-Mart store in Wisconsin were so underpaid they had to take $1 million in public benefits in 2013.

The internal debate about shopping at Wal-Mart has hounded me since a robust dinner-table conversation with friends many years ago. Several were Wal-Mart shoppers, while others shunned it. For the most part, I’ve avoided Wal-Mart while writing columns about the subpar wages it paid employees, most of whom earned under $25,000 while the CEO made $17.6 million.

But change is coming. This year, after labor strikes, boycotts and lawsuits, a downgraded market rating, and a compendium of bad press, America’s largest employer announced it was raising starting pay from the $7.25 hourly mandated minimum to at least $9 an hour, and to at least $10 by February. The company said more than a third of its 1.4 million U.S. workers will see pay increases. Hourly full-time workers will average $13 an hour. The changes are expected to cost the company more than $1 billion this fiscal year.

Wal-Mart also agreed to make workers’ schedules more consistent so their hours don’t change from week to week.

These changes aren’t necessarily being made out of the goodness of the company’s heart. Some states raised their minimum wages, forcing employers to comply. Workers have gone on strike for better pay and scheduling, and falling unemployment has given them other options. CEO Doug McMillon even acknowledged company practices had cost it customers, and spoke of “strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences.”

So should you shop at Wal-Mart now? A friend who was on the avoid-Wal-Mart side in that dinner conversation years ago, says she prefers to shop at locally owned stores that treat their producers well and care about the treatment of animals. While she supports Wal-Mart’s increase in wages, she said, “They’re doing very little and very late. They have sufficiently deep pockets that they could increase their base wage now.”

That friend, Kathy Eckhouse, and her husband, Herb, own La Quercia, which makes prosciutto and other cured pork products. They have 50 employees at their Iowa plant, and raised their minimum wage to $10.10 after President Barack Obama’s call for doing so in last year’s State of the Union speech. She said they don’t want anyone having to work two jobs to get by.

Nice as it would be to shop exclusively at independent local stores, Wal-Mart’s lower prices still tug at consumers on a budget. And just as there was a case to be made for withholding one’s dollars from the store when it underpaid workers, there is a case to be made for showing approval for the wage hike by returning there.

In the end, each of us has to weigh the good and bad against our own priorities in deciding where to shop. These aren’t simple choices. But if nothing else, Wal-Mart has made its contribution by forcing us to think about what it means to be a socially responsible retailer — and consumer.

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