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Smiling all the way to the bank 

by Dan Richardson

Wal-Mart's a monster. An 800-pound gorilla. But how big is it really?

Calling it a global retail giant or noting that the company is the largest private employer in the U.S. is accurate but lacks context. When it comes to Wal-Mart, the best comparisons are probably to small countries.

Wal-Mart reports global sales of just under $217.8 billion dollars from the one-year period ending Jan. 31. That dwarfs what the government of Canada took in tax revenues last year ($126 billion, according to the CIA World Fact Book). It's more than the governments of Mexico and the rest of Central America brought in combined.

Looking at gross domestic product, a measurement of a given nation's entire economic activity, Wal-Mart is about the same size as Sweden.

Its sales are eight times those of Microsoft, and a few billion more than Ford's.

Two hundred eighteen billion is a big number, even broken down into smaller pieces like, say, by the day ($597 million) or the hour ($24 million).

Or even the minute. People, mostly Americans, spent $414,764 a minute at Wal-Mart, every minute, 24 hours a day, picking up toothbrushes and chainsaws, Britney Spears posters and television sets. In the U.S. alone, Wal-Mart sales work out to about $646 for every man, woman and child per year.

Of course, Wal-Mart spends money, too. In the United States alone, the company spent more than $85 billion to stock its shelves last year -- paying its suppliers more than three times what the state of Washington did for its highways, prisons and welfare.

It's not all about money, of course: Wal-Mart employs 1.3 million people, according to its year-end report, including more than one million Americans. Sure, a fair percentage of those jobs are part-time, the retail equivalent of burger-flipping. Still, more Americans receive Wal-Mart paychecks than live in Montana.

Oh, and Microsoft? Wal-Mart's U.S. employees outnumber Microsoft's something like 28 to 1. For Ford, its about 3 to 1.

The Inland Northwest? It would take two Inland Northwests' worth of people to staff those jobs.

And while most American companies are struggling with the economic recession, Wal-Mart appears immune. Its financial report calls 2001 "difficult," but then boasts record earnings for that year. Net sales were up nearly 14 percent for the year.

The bottom line is that Wal-Mart's numbers are going up: This gorilla is only getting larger. Since 1999, its U.S. sales are up one-third. Overseas, in the company's new frontier, it has almost doubled its sales in that time.
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