“Walmart” is one of those few words that can inadvertantly change the course of what was previously an unserious conversation. I was reminded of this when I mentioned the store in passing to my brother Mitch. Mitch is about as Republican as they come so it didn’t really occur to me that he might get hot-and-bothered by the fact that I shop at the Great Retail Destroyer.

I have read a lot of good pieces on the reasons that Walmart is a force for evil in this country. I’ve read about a lot of things Walmart does that I don’t approve of in the slightest. I’ve also read a lot of good defenses of Walmart and why they are a boon to the economy overall and a force for good. I honestly think that both sides make very good points. I would support a number of actions by the government to do a better job of keeping Walmart honest, though I haven’t seen enough yet for me to believe that it would be good for the overall economy if Walmart were to be driven off the face of the earth.

I do know, however, that I would not be better off, and the reason has almost nothing to do with prices.

Back when I lived in Colosse, I only rarely shopped at Walmart. It was only if I needed something that I was told that Walmart had and I either didn’t know what other place would have it or I needed to do it at an hour that Walmart was the only place open. Even though I’m sure there are a hundred locations in the area, I could only list off the locations of two Walmart Supercenters. At that point Walmart could have been shut down for good and I would not have cared.

That changed when we moved to non-urban Deseret. Zarahemla and Mocum, the town where I lived and the town where I worked, were (by my standards) small towns with relatively few shopping options and a very early bed time. If you needed to do any shopping at any point past 9 or 10, Walmart was really your only safe option. It was the only place in town to get a whole lot of things on Sundays. Living out there taught me that not every place had all of the options that Colosse did and it gave me a greater appreciation for those options that I had. First and foremost was Walmart.

It is said that Walmart is often the only place to get those things because they drove the retailers out of business. Maybe that’s true. Maybe once upon a time there was a place to get each and every thing that Walmart offers. That may have been true where I was in Deseret. That’s not true in a whole lot of places as well, though.

As Clancy and I look for a place to settle down, we’re looking in relatively remote places. We’re looking in places of 10,000 and 20,000 and 40,000. These are often places that can’t support a Home Depot or a compehensive specialty equivalent. The Mom and Pop’s often have restricted hours and restricted selection. It’s simply not true, out in the rural west at least, that there is always some other place to go. It’s definitely not true that there is a place as convenient as Walmart.

A lot of Walmart opponents like to prop up CostCo. Leaving aside the fact that CostCo is more a competitor of Sam’s Club than Walmart, there aren’t nearly as many of those around. If I’m in a town that has both a Walmart and a CostCo equivalent, I’d be more than happy to shop at the latter. But Walmarts are everywhere and CostCos are not. Whereas CostCo is apparently spending its money paying its employees a more liveable wage, Walmart is pumping its back in to expansion into places that don’t have a whole lot of retail options. It’s great that CostCo has the HR policies that it does, but living out in BFE it’s Walmart and not CostCo that is providing service.

For me it isn’t about price, it’s about convenience. I really like being able to have a shopping list that can almost entirely be satisfied by going to a single place. I can get some headphones, some sliced cheese, some cool aid, and some shoe inserts all at the same place. A shopping trip that used to take me four stops and two and a half hours is now forty-five minutes. I can stop on my way from anywhere to anywhere and if I see that sign, I know that I can get a wide array of products. I don’t even have to know where in the country I am. I know what’s there (for the most part), I know where it is (usually), and I have a pretty good idea what it costs. As we look at different places to live, how close the nearest Walmart is will be a selling point since it would otherwise take a great deal of time to find out what all is available in the area. The fact that I pay less for all this is merely an added benefit. One that I would gladly give up if I got to keep the convenience.

I believe that every independent American that works deserves a liveable wage. I am generally supportive of laws that make that happen. I’d support laws that would hurt Walmart if they are means to that end, but I’m not convinced that going after Walmart explicitly would be a means to that end. With the exception of Mom and Pop stores that they put out of business and people who happen to work for factories being put out of business by their Chinese imports, I am not convinced that anything would improve if Walmart disappeared tomorrow. I don’t see Walmart employees suddenly being able to find jobs elsewhere that pay more. I see a lot of people in a lot of rural places have a lot fewer options. I see people’s paychecks being stretched thinner.

So by all means, let’s close whatever loophole’s Walmart may be using to give it an unfair advantage if it will make the average joe’s life better off. But I don’t give much quarter to arguments about how hurting Walmart is an ends unto itself rather than simply a biproduct of our march towards greater social justice.


Category: Market

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9 Responses to The Heart of Walmart

  1. Peter says:

    Talk about coincidence … barely an hour ago, on the train into work, I was watching a downloaded episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” on my iPod in which they defended Wal-Mart. P&T may not be a wholly unbiased source, but they did what seemed like a pretty good job of de-demonizing the company and pointing out the hypocracy of its opponents.

    That being said, I am generally underwhelmed by the Wal-Mart shopping experience. Most of the stores near me, including one that’s just a couple years old, seem cluttered and disorganized, and of course there never are enough registers open. Even so, for some things their prices can’t be beat.

  2. Webmaster says:

    But Walmarts are everywhere and CostCos are not. Whereas CostCo is apparently spending its money paying its employees a more liveable wage, Walmart is pumping its back in to expansion into places that don’t have a whole lot of retail options.

    Not quite the case; in Colosse, Walmart has begun closing down locations (locations that they put in a few years ago with the stated intention to predatorily kill off certain mom-and-pop and chain competitors, and which had permanent store-wide “sales” until said goal was accomplished) on the grounds that they are now cannibalizing sales from other Walmart stores in Colosse.

    With the exception of Mom and Pop stores that they put out of business and people who happen to work for factories being put out of business by their Chinese imports, I am not convinced that anything would improve if Walmart disappeared tomorrow.

    The problem here is, until Sam died, Wal-Mart was a big believer in American products. After he died, the bean counters went nuts, and Wal-Mart is one of the biggest reasons for our current trade deficit problem.

    It’s also something of a vicious circle – Wal-Mart both depresses wages and drives competing businesses that formerly provided better wages (not to mention abusing “part-time” staff designations), and then offers a “benefit” of lower priced (but no longer locally produced and thus removing money from the local economy, not to mention of pretty crap quality) goods to supplant what the former stores offered.

  3. trumwill says:

    the stated intention to predatorily kill off certain mom-and-pop and chain competitors,

    I would like to see a cite for where they stated that as their intention. I don’t doubt that Walmart would do such a thing, but doing so openly can create legal problems.

    Not quite the case; in Colosse,

    Colosse is not a place that lacks retail options. It’s a major metropolitan area. Even with closures there are still a lot more of them than CostCos.

    In any case, Colosse isn’t what I’m concerned about. If all the Walmarts left the city, it wouldn’t phase me too much. Take it out of the small towns and, contrary to what some people say, they will not be replaced some a bunch of moms and pops that offer the same array of products with the same convenient hours.

    I get a kick out of city people make a big deal about how they’re boycotting Walmart. As if it’s even a challenge.

    It’s also something of a vicious circle – Wal-Mart both depresses wages and drives competing businesses that formerly provided better wages (not to mention abusing “part-time” staff designations),

    A whole lot of Walmart’s jobs are in retail. For retail jobs, they actually don’t pay that poorly. CostCo is the exception, not Walmart. Out west, Walmart was actually one of the higher paying employers. They treated their employees pretty bad even compared to other retail jobs, though.

    and then offers a “benefit” of lower priced

    It also offers the benefit of greater availability of products in more places. It simply isn’t true that all they offer is a cheaper version of what was already available. That may be true in cities, but it isn’t true everywhere by a longshot. They also offer these things in a convenient one-stop manner. The money it saves me is incidental. The time it gives me is priceless. For people downward on the economic scale, but a lot of the products they’re saving money on are the same things that they’d be getting elsewhere (Walmart’s Wrangler Jeans are the same as anyone else’s, as far as I know) and I’m not convinced either way that the savings they get from Walmart don’t outstrip the ways that Walmart is hurting them (I’m not convinced either way on that debate).

    At any rate, there are definitely downsides to Walmart. But there are a lot of upsides, too. In a perfect world we might have companies that buy American, pay livable wages, and offer the sorts of things that Walmart does in as many places as they do. That place doesn’t exist and I don’t believe it would if Walmart suddenly ceased to exist.

    {this comment was modified at 1:01pm}

  4. Barry says:

    I was about to comment that I’d like to see citations for that statement about “driving Mom and Pop’s out of business” myself. Was it in a press release, or something leaked out of a private board meeting? That might make a slight bit of difference.

    How does an employee come up on a “living wage” crisis? If they’re hired at WalMart, presumably they know the wage they’re being hired for and if it’s below their means right then, it’s their own fault. Does the controversy come from WalMart subsequently cutting people’s wages or hours under the “living wage” threshold, or just simply not increase them at a rate that keeps up with costs of living? Even so, how close to the “living wage” level to people need to be looking for work at? If $8/hour at 35 hrs/week is the bare minimum I can work and support myself or my family, does it make sense to take a job at $8.25/hr at 40 hrs/week and not be shocked if at some point that living wage level doesn’t fluxuate itself over your income? Aren’t jobs a little more plentiful in most places that one could find one with a little more wiggle room without much trouble, especially at that unskilled level of employment?

  5. trumwill says:

    How does an employee come up on a “living wage” crisis? If they’re hired at WalMart, presumably they know the wage they’re being hired for and if it’s below their means right then, it’s their own fault.

    If depends on whether or not they had other options that would have paid more. If I ended up working at Walmart, it would definitely be my fault. For some rural farm kid that got a cut-rate education and not much in the way of marketable skills, it is something of a social problem. The question we would have to ask ourselves is whether or not anyone should work 40 hours a week (or 50) and still not be able to afford a decent life. The second question is what constitutes a decent life.

    Aren’t jobs a little more plentiful in most places that one could find one with a little more wiggle room without much trouble, especially at that unskilled level of employment?

    Jobs are plentiful at the minimum wage level up to maybe $8.50 an our, but there seems to be a ceiling there if you don’t have any skills. That’s not to say that you can’t land a job that makes more, but it starts getting a lot harder and starts requiring luck and intangible talents.

  6. Spungen says:

    As another person who works late and has lived in rural areas, I agree re the convenience aspect. I also suspect Walmart is better at hiring women and minorities, including people with problematic backgrounds, than the average mom-and-pop would be. Many of my clients get out of rehab and the first job they get is at Walmart.

  7. Lucy Xten says:

    Do Walmart critics have children? To go to four different stores, and at each store, to take the babies out of the car seat and carry them across a parking lot and set them up in a shopping cart, and then to do the reverse operation and strap them back in… The price has little to do with it, as trumwill says, it’s about convenience and doing all your shopping at once. An anonymous and not-so-classy and slightly messy store is a nice place to waste time with a toddler, too.

  8. trumwill says:

    Many of my clients get out of rehab and the first job they get is at Walmart.

    I hadn’t thought of it, but that sounds about right. Walmart is one of those employers that are great for those just entering the work force or rejoining it.

    Do Walmart critics have children?

    Now that you mention it, almost none of the people I know personally that are fierce critics of Walmart have families.

  9. Hit Coffee » Money? What’s that? says:

    […] of this, I’m sure, is the consumerist nature of society. Will looks at Wal-Mart and defends them for what he sees as a benefit in offering low prices and a concentration of goods, but I&#82 […]

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