Before the long and unfortunate labour dispute in the National Hockey League, the game was facing a serious problem. Through careful statistical research, and man-years of trolling through videotape replays, an incredibly defensive system of play was developed which almost (but not quite) guaranteed victory. It was called “The Trap.” The Trap was effectively a practical representation of the mathematically most correct way to play the game.
While The Trap was spoken of in sneers and jeers by those who despised it for its systemic perfection and for the way it slowed the fastest game of ice down to the point of boredom, even coaches who hated it were forced to adopt it in order to have any chance of success. Watching a game between New Jersey and Ottawa was like watching paint dry, except slower. Many claimed The Trap was destroying the game, but everyone had to follow suit merely to remain viable.
Fortunately, the labour dispute which cost the league a year of hockey also gave it the chance to change the rules enough to break The Trap, and while there’s debate about the merits of many of the new rules (penalty shot anyone?), the destruction of The Trap was a smashing success.
All of that, of course, is preamble for the fact that I read a book this weekend.
The United States of Wal-Mart by John Dicker is an interesting look at the worlds largest corporation. I won’t go into the details of Wal-Mart’s successes, or the hundreds of statistics the book presents, but I will suggest that everyone go to their public library and give it a read. For most people, it’ll take about a day to read.
Wal-Mart’s strategy for dominating the marketplace is virtually identical to The Trap in hockey. By carefully monitoring massive amounts of retail information, Wal-Mart has hit upon a strategy that mimics, in three dimensional reality, a mathematically perfect way to play the game of commerce.
While it is not difficult to see that Wal-Mart’s strategies often reduce the standard of living in communities in which a Supercenter opens, and that the company is driving manufacturing jobs overseas in the pursuit of lower per-unit prices, it is incredibly difficult (as the book states) to explain to someone who makes minimum wage how a $25 DVD player could be a bad thing.
Lets face it. Wal-Mart is the ultimate expression of our capitalist, free-market system. They’ve perfected it. And, just like in hockey, competitors are forced to follow suit or perish. Mostly they’re perishing, because Wal-Mart is so very good at the game.
Nothing short of a change to the rules will stop the Bentonville juggernaut. Nobody is forcing people to shop at Wal-Mart. The market is, as it’s supposed to, voting with its wallet, and Wal-Mart is winning. They will continue to win. The formula for the game has been found, and honed to perfection.
In commerce as in hockey, The Trap is destroying the game.