HARTFORD, Conn. â€” Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has always competed with Main Street clothing and hardware stores, but this spring, the retail giant may be going head-to-head with specialty stores that sell handmade arts and crafts.
Wal-Mart will begin selling one-of-a-kind handicrafts made by women artisans in developing countries online at Walmart.com.
Itâ€™s a surprise move for a retailer whose empire is built on offering mass-produced items at discount prices. But for a West Hartford nonprofit, Aid To Artisans Inc., whose mission is helping Third World artisans develop and sell their handicrafts to buyers in North America, Wal-Martâ€™s new venture represents a major new market.
Wal-Mart isnâ€™t talking prices yet, but by 2016 it plans to offer up to 500 items by 20,000 women artisans in two-dozen countries. Among this springâ€™s offerings: dresses from Kenya and jewelry from Guatemala and Thailand.
Wal-Martâ€™s announcement has startled many and raised the concerns of importers and retailers who say they follow the precepts of fair trade, including Ten Thousand Villages, the nationâ€™s oldest and largest fair trade retailer.
â€œIt certainly does seem in sharp contrast to Wal-Martâ€™s typical business model,â€ said Michele Loeper, a spokeswoman at the Akron, Pa., headquarters for Ten Thousand Villages.
â€œIâ€™m not sure what their model will be,â€ Loeper said. â€œFrom our point of view we work with the artisans to identify a fair income, one that will benefit them and be sustainable. Weâ€™re the anti-Wal-Mart, a nonprofit company dedicated to providing sustainable income opportunities to artisans in developing countries â€” I doubt thatâ€™s what Wal-Mart is doing here.â€
Down the road, does Ten Thousand Villages view Wal-Mart as competition?
â€œThat remains to be seen,â€ Loeper said.
Wal-Mart said it plans to procure some products from Ethical Fashion Africa and Full Circle Exchange, a program within the International Trade Centre. ITC is a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
The e-commerce site is an â€œideal venueâ€ for artisans who â€œmay not have the size or scale to sell in our brick-and-mortar stores,â€ and giving them â€œthe benefit of the companyâ€™s knowledge about customers, packaging and promotions,â€ Leslie Dach, Wal-Martâ€™s executive vice president of corporate affairs, said.