Two years into a union-led campaign against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., only a fraction of 1 percent of American consumers have stopped shopping there because of negative publicity, according to a poll commissioned by Wal-Mart and made public Wednesday.
The survey of 2,500 adults by bipartisan public affairs polling group RT Strategies concluded that most Americans shop at a Wal-Mart store at least sometimes and most of those who do not say it's because there is no store nearby.
"What we found is that 89 percent of Americans do shop our stores and 11 percent don't," Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar said. The margin of error in the telephone survey conducted in December was plus or minus 2 percent, Wal-Mart said.
Those who cited negative publicity as a reason for no longer shopping at Wal-Mart were a fraction of the total, just 0.12 percent, pollster Thomas Riehle said.
The numbers, which Wal-Mart shared for the first time with The Associated Press, appeared to contradict an internal report for Wal-Mart by consulting firm McKinsey in 2004 that said Wal-Mart had lost between 2 and 8 percent of its shoppers over bad publicity.
"That's an old number, it's outdated, it's just not relevant anymore," Tovar said about the McKinsey study. Tovar said he could not comment on whether the McKinsey numbers were accurate at the time.
Wal-Mart released the poll a day after a leak of internal Wal-Mart market research that found 14 percent of U.S. consumers are "conscientious objectors" with little loyalty to the world's largest retailer.
The market research posted on Consumerist.com was confirmed by Wal-Mart as genuine.
Tovar said "conscientious objector" referred to consumers who base purchases on a company's practices like charitable giving or environmental measures. The term does not mean Wal-Mart boycotters, Tovar said, noting that many of those consumers shop at Wal-Mart.
Tovar said internal polling that Wal-Mart has not released showed the attacks by union critics were not damaging Wal-Mart's reputation.
"Our internal tracking numbers have not moved at all, so we don't think they've had any impact," he said.
Nevertheless, the company is struggling with sagging sales growth. On Thursday, Wal-Mart said U.S. same-store sales for the four weeks ended March 2 grew by a paltry 0.9 percent, hurt in part by weak sales of apparel and items for the home. The measure of sales growth for stores open at least one year is considered an important barometer of a retailer's overall health.
Wal-Mart has been a lightning rod for critics, led by two union-backed groups formed in early 2005 to use political campaign-style tactics to attack the retailer for what they claim are skimpy wages and benefits.
Wal-Mart denies those claims and has spent a growing amount of time defending its record as a corporate citizen and the nation's largest private employer.
One of those groups, Wal-Mart Watch, said it does not believe the results of Wal-Mart's latest poll. Group spokesman Nu Wexler said it is inconceivable that Wal-Mart's reputation has improved in the two and a half years since the McKinsey study.
"They have been raked over the coals in terms of health care, wages, lawsuits. There's no good news in there," Wexler said.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last September found 45 percent of those surveyed viewed Wal-Mart favorably and 31 percent had negative views of the retailer. The remainder were undecided or had no answer.
The comparison for Target Corp. was 51 percent favorable and 10 percent negative.