Wal-Mart’s failed entry into the German retail market represents a puzzle for theories of globalization, which assert that more efficient producers will drive out poorly performing competitors, producing profits for themselves and gains for consumers. Wal-Mart’s ability to dominate its input network and to provide low-cost leadership through lean production has often been seen as the global example of creating efficiencies in the retail sector. In 2006, however Wal-Mart abandoned an eight-year effort to become a dominant player in Germany’s retail market. I argue that efficiency is not absolute, but rather context-specific and socially constructed. Domestic culture and institutions interact to constrain convergence towards a single business model in the retail sector. In the end, it was not the rigidity of German market conditions—such as high labor costs or union power—that led to failure, but rather the inflexibility of Wal-Mart’s strategy in coping with complex local conditions.
Matthias Kaelberer is Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Memphis. He is the author of Money and Power in Europe: The Political Economy of European Monetary Cooperation (Albany, 2001) and numerous articles on European political economy and culture.