ORLANDO, Fla. — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is hoping for a groundswell “made-in-America” movement.
The world’s largest retailer hosted its first two-day summit Thursday bringing together retailers, suppliers and government officials that it hopes will build on its recent commitment to drive more manufacturing in the U.S.
The event, which attracted representatives from 500 manufacturers, eight governors, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and officials from three dozen states, is occurring seven months after the Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter pledged that it planned to buy $50 billion more U. S. made goods over the next decade. That’s the equivalent of just more than 10 percent of what Wal-Mart will sell at retail this year.
But Wal-Mart has said that if other merchants do the same, that would mean an additional $500 billion in American-made goods over the next decade.
The lineup for Thursday was impressive, and the campaign could serve to boost Wal-Mart’s image, constantly under attack by labor-backed groups who have criticized the retail behemoth as a destroyer of U.S. jobs, not a creator.
Wal-Mart’s CEO Mike Duke, Bill Simon, the company’s U.S division CEO and other executives, joined other business leaders including Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Corp., and Kevin Toomey, president and CEO of the Kayser-Roth Corp.
The goal of the summit is to start “connecting the dots” with a dialogue among manufacturers, retailers and state officials about where opportunities are to bring more manufacturing to the United States, Simon said.
Rising wages have erased some of the competitive advantages China had in manufacturing, Simon said.
“We think we can map out opportunities and put some systems in place and commit to this for the long term,” Simon said. “There’s nothing less than the future of our country at stake here.”
To be sure, even if Wal-Mart is successful in getting key retailers and suppliers on board, experts say it won’t rejuvenate the U.S. manufacturing industry. But the movement could help stem the tide of jobs flowing to China and elsewhere that has been occurring in the last two decades.
Some experts are skeptical, pointing out that Wal-Mart led the migration of manufacturing jobs overseas in search of the cheapest labor, veering away from the principles of its late founder Sam Walton, who espoused buying American-made goods.
“It’s a very positive PR move for the company,” said Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. “But it took two decades to unwind the American manufacturing base and it will take two decades to bring it back.” He says what will be brought back will only be a fraction of business sent overseas.
This is not the first time that Wal-Mart has pledged a made-in America campaign.
It pushed a similar program in the mid-1990s that fizzled because it couldn’t get enough low-priced goods to sell to its low-income shoppers.