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November 12, 2006

Wal-Mart: The End of Civilization As We Know It?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Wal-Mart, it seems, is a Big Deal to some of our Loyal Readers as can be seen in comments to the second and others of Michael's posts dealing with a Bill Kauffman interview where there seems to be dislike of Wal-Mart expressed with varying degrees of passion.

Me, I'm indifferent to Wal-Mart, and I can't quite get my head around the hate and bile directed at the company and its stores that I see on the Web and in the press. Doubtless this is a character flaw on my part.

Setting aside pros and cons regarding labor issues, I see Wal-Mart as simply one example of the current fashion for big-box stores. And retail fashions change: who knows what concept will be hot in 2015.

Where I live, some pretty big boxes are represented by Fred Meyer, Lowes and Costco.

I seldom hear complaints about Costco. Could that be because Costco executives, unlike many at Wal-Mart, tend to donate to Democrats? -- jes' askin'. Lord knows their stores seem to occupy as much suburban real estate as Wal-Mart's do.

And (gasp!!) I even shop at Wal-Mart. Not often, but at times when I have a list of items I'd like to save money on -- vitamin pills, disposable razors, those kinds of things. Got my blood pressure tester there too.

Truth is, I like big-box stores. I like the wide selection of goods they offer, I like their business hours and I like their competitive prices. This beats the Good Olde Days when one often payed top dollar on a limited selection of items and more than sometimes had to wait for something not in stock to be special-ordered.

As for being aesthetic blights, I'll admit that Wal-Mart stores and their ilk aren't pretty. But they're functional, particularly in the context of the freeway-scape.

Uh oh. I just mentioned freeways. Betcha lots of our readers hate those too. Now to hunker down and wait for the incoming artillery.



posted by Donald at November 12, 2006


It's hard not to see a big dose of class-based condescension in much of the opposition to Wal-Mart. While of course people from all walks of life shop at Wal-Mart, its core market tends to be a bit downscale. People who have country club memberships and own NFL season tickets often aren't big Wal-Mart shoppers. Costco gets better treatment because its core customers are regarded as more upscale.

Posted by: Peter on November 12, 2006 7:55 PM

There are entire documentaries-pro and con-available about Wal-Mart, but just off the top of my head:

Wal-Mart has been demonstrated to pay rock bottom wages and substandard or no medical benefits, even instructing employees on how and where they can apply for food stamps and Medicaid. These costs are then fobbed off on the state and thereby to taxpayers.

Wal-Mart is adamantly anti-union and according to at least one employee's account I read somewhere, the small amount of time reserved for employee training consisted mainly in viewing a video telling employees why they shouldn't join a union.

Wal-Mart has also been found guilty of not only hiring illegal aliens but housing them in the bowels of their cavernous stores after hours.

Also, from my understanding, Costco simply provides better pay and benefits than Wal-Mart.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 12, 2006 8:27 PM

Costco pays its workers much less than Wal-Mart but also employs about one-fifth as many on a relative basis. For instance, to use strictly made-up figures, if Wal-Mart employs 25 workers for each million dollars of sales, Costco employs five. Having Wal-Mart adopt Costco-style employment pay and practices would cost a huge number of jobs.

Posted by: Peter on November 12, 2006 9:53 PM

I remember going to Hartford, CONN, in late fall of 1980 and needing a plain old-fashioned flannel nightgown. I was just beginning a student ministry and asked my supervising minister where I could expect to buy such a garment. "For heaven's sake," he exclaimed, "Don't go to the mall. You'll get all confused and anyway, it's destroying the downtown." He gave me complicated directions to a little shop downtown which turned out (once I found it) not to have such a nightgown. So I went to the Mall, walked in confidently since I'd been shopping in malls for years, went straight to the proper store and bought my nightgown for a respectable price.

As you say, the ground shifts. Right now, it's a tossup between driving a hundred miles to a Big Box Store (with a long list of things to get there in order to justify the gas) or just hopping on the Internet, which wouldn't have worked only a couple of years ago.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 12, 2006 11:00 PM

The first Peter post above is a lot more plausible than consumers basing decisions on executives' political donations.

Posted by: ptm on November 13, 2006 12:49 AM

I shop at Wal-Mart. There are terrific deals on all kinds of items. Once, I found five pairs of shoes - three canvas covered slip-ons (black, white and navy), $6.75 a pair! a pair of black leather running shoes, $23.50, and a pair of brown suede slip ons, on clearance sale at $3!!! - five pairs of shoes for $46.75 (plus tax). Another time I found a set of queen size 300 count 60% cotton sheets (fitted, flat and pillow case) for under $25.

The Left's hatred for Wal-Mart is just one more example of its perverse insanity.

And for cripes sake, stop apologizing each time you demure, ever so carefully, from the politically correct position!

Posted by: ricpic on November 13, 2006 8:20 AM

Being picky here. Even though Sam's Club is owned by Wal-Mart, it's that retail structure that has to be compared to Costco, rather than Wal-Mart. I'm not sure where Peter got his information regarding the pay-scales; I was always under the impression, both through printed info and through converesation with employees at both places, that Costco workers were paid a bit higher and received better benefits than Sam's Club employees. If you go to either ones, you'll notice that the number of employees actually meandering around is about the same. In general, it's a pain to check out of either. Personally, I prefer Sam's Club to Costco. The prices are lower, the selection is a bit more varied, and the attitude is more down-to-earth, i.e., I'm here to buy mass quantities, why prettify the experience. And, why pay more to upscale such an experience.
When I want a pleasant shopping experience, specifically of the food variety, I always go to Wegman's or Food Source. No Zabar's or Zagara's close enough for regulaar visits.

Posted by: DarkoV on November 13, 2006 8:29 AM

In my part of the country, Target and Costco both pay significantly less than Wal-Mart.

Posted by: beloml on November 13, 2006 9:05 AM

Me, I can't stand Walmart for one simple reason: it's not convenient. Sure, you can save a couple of bucks by going there, but the real cost is in your time. They don't put enough cashiers on, so if I do bother to go there, I need to be buying a large quantity or am guaranteed to save a ton of money. I stopped going there for onesy-twosy stuff a long time ago. I'd spend five minutes in the store and 45 minutes in line waiting to get out. They pretended to solve the "problem" by putting in self-scanning cashier lanes, but people who shop at walmart apparently can neither read nor count. 20 items or less does not mean your two shopping carts full of groceries. Even the ones who manage to use them for their intended purpose seem to find them too complex. Of course, all of this assumes the damn things are actually working that day. Any time I've been in there, I've never seen more than 2 of the 10 self-scanning lanes actually open. Apparently, they don't pay the self-scanners enough either.

Speaking of underpaying their employees...because they're underpaid, they couldn't care less about doing their jobs properly, so items aren't marked with the right price half the time prompting the customers to have to get every item's price double-checked. (Once, the person in line ahead of me had complained about the price of almost everything in her order. Finally, we got to the last item and it's price was off by a quarter. Having already spent 45 minutes in line behind her, and the lines being a mile long elsewhere, I handed her a quarter and said "let's just get this moving along, huh?")

I don't care about the sociological implications of walmart. There's always going to be a need for lower-cost alternatives. In some rural areas, walmart is the only place people have to shop. That was true before walmart got there, too. what I can't stand is the poor service and poor quality of their products. I'd much rather go to Target, spend the same amount and get better products in a lot less time.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on November 13, 2006 9:23 AM

I like your term "freewayscape"! That's just what it feels like.

I have nothing against the freewayscape life, except that I don't want to live it, I want to minimize my own interactions with it, and it often appears to be the only option around. Lordy, driving through traffic from one parking lot to another, and then repeating a few times, and finally winding up in your garage .... Nothing against people who do like this kind of life, or who feel stuck with putting up with it, of course. Just not for me.

But I often feel a little surprised that as many people appear either to like it or be willing to put up with it as do. Are the people like me -- who like towns and cities and walking, and who find the freewayscape thing off-putting -- so rare?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2006 11:02 AM

I think what I fear most about Wal-Mart is that they reduce the choices we as consumers have.

I don't wants the same few crappy brands to survive simply because Wal-Mart decides to carry them. And for Wal-Mart to carry them, they force manufacturers to reduce costs that often result in lesser quality merchandise among other things.

Many smaller "mom and pop" retailers are free to carry some more obscure, higher quality brand items that now may be more expensive, but last longer, are better built, healthier, etc.

I don't want Wal-Mart putting these smaller stores and brands out of business.

Maybe it comes down to what I value as a consumer. I value longevity and quality over features and price.

If Wal-Mart eliminates all competition, then I'm left with no real choice.

Of course I can criticize the other big-box retailers for the same thing, but it seems Wal-Mart is driving this trend, forcing competitors to adapt.

Posted by: Steven K. on November 13, 2006 11:03 AM

Actually in some places Walmart WASN'T the only place that people had to shop, but once Walmart came in all of the alternatives went away.

Whether there's a real causal relationship there or not, it certainly feels like it, and that, along with the other reasons Upstate Guy has given, are why I hate the place.

Posted by: i, squub on November 13, 2006 11:03 AM

I remember Wal-Mart from the early 1970s, just as it was working itself all the way over to the northeast Arkanas counties I grew up in. Had we but bought stock. . .but I digress.

I have no political hate for Wal-Mart, just aesthetic. Many of its stores in the northeast, taken over from other chains, are cramped and ugly. (The newer ones aren't beautiful, but they don't depress your spirits as soon as you walk in the door).

They've taken their cost-cutting too far in some areas, from what I can see, and some of their goods are now cheaper because they're demonstrably inferior. That includes some name-brand items, whose manufacturers produce special models just for the Wal-Mart account.

I tend to buy more discount goods at Target, because their stores do a better job with these problems. But I don't begrudge Wal-Mart its existence, because I know that there are many shoppers who can't afford to let such things influence their decisions.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 13, 2006 11:56 AM

Upstate Guy:
It indeed is true that the "experience" of shopping at Wal-Mart leave much to be desired. The checkout lines are always too long,* the aisles are too narrow, the shelves aren't always restocked, and so on. Even so, for certain items the prices can't be beat.
* = in my experience, self-service checkouts don't work well anywhere.

Posted by: Peter on November 13, 2006 12:03 PM

"I think what I fear most about Wal-Mart is that they reduce the choices we as consumers have."

"Actually in some places Walmart WASN'T the only place that people had to shop, but once Walmart came in all of the alternatives went away."

My wife comes from a town on the eastern Colorado plains. That town is about an hour away from every other town of similar or larger size. When she moved away in the early 80s, the town was slowly dying -- the railroad jobs were gone, the sugar beet plants were closing, and nothing else was bringing in much money.

At that time, nearly all the businesses in town were the usual sort of mom-and-pop businesses that survive in such places. For those who have never worked for Mom or Pop, that means that they paid minimum wage, had no health plan, and if you were lucky you might get a week of paid vacation every year. Oh, and they closed at 6:30 at night, so you had to take time off work to get to town when they were open or go on the weekend. And lets not forget that their prices ran 20-50% higher than the prices in big cities (they had to keep the doors open somehow).

Then Wal-Mart decided to open a store in the town. Wal-Mart paid better wages than the other stores in town, offered a health plan and 401K, and gave employees paid vacation and sick leave.

The health plan wasn't as good as the plan you get if you work for IBM, but there aren't a lot of IBM jobs in the Colorado plains. The pay wasn't as good as that offered by Nordstrom's in Denver, but then that wasn't the competition. And Wal-Mart was much better about actually following the labor laws than Mom and Pop, who neither knew nor cared (in many cases) anything about law or basic decency.

The Wal-Mart store was open 24/365 and had ten times as many different items on the shelves in almost every category as the other stores in town. And their prices were lower. The result was that most of the mom-and-pop stores went out of business.

Now, fifteen years later, the Wal-Mart store still has prices competitive with the prices in Denver. (No price gouging that I could see, and I live in Denver and visit my wife's home town fairly often, so I can compare reasonably efficiently.) The town now has a much greater selection of small businesses than it had 20 years ago, though now they are mostly specialty retailers. There are also many more (and better) restaurants in the town than there used to be.

It turns out that Wal-Mart's (much higher) pay, better selection, and immeasurably better customer service has contributed quite a bit to the quality of life for people living in that remote area.

Mom and Pop are out of business? Good riddance.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 13, 2006 12:10 PM

Hmm. I sidestepped the labor/wage issue but others piled in.

ricpic -- I guess I just like to perfume the stench of my evil, neocon political side. The point being that I don't want to unnecessarily offend readers who disagree with my politics. Sometimes we blow our cool, but 2Blowhards posters tend to make their points in a gentle manner.

Michael -- Here's an angle to ponder. Folks have to get stuff. The nature of the stuff depends upon budget and taste, of course. But wouldn't it be interesting to find some research dealing with the time it takes to get to the places where one can shop for said stuff.

I'm writing this in Hollister, CA where it takes anywhere from 35 to 55 minutes to get to any stores that are a cut above Target. Tomorrow, I'll be in Seattle, where the time-to-destination will be more on the order of 10-20 minutes.

I wonder what the average time would be for freewayscape big-boxers versus that for a NYC resident? How much hassle is it for someone in your neck of the woods to get to Bloomingdales? And then return with all the stash.

It's a matter of taste and locale. NYC is nearly unique; I can't think of any other US city where a good share of the people can spend a lifetime without the need to learn to drive. To an outsider like me, NYC living seems, in many respects, to be a huge hassle. Take shopping for groceries and getting the stuff home; even with one of those wheely-basket thingies, one can't pack very much. So it means a trip every 2-3 days.

Ain't life in the big, wide USA interesting.

i, squub, et. al. -- Wal-Mart might have wiped out competition in small towns; I don't know from personal experience. But in all other places Wal-Mart is not the only store in business. There is plenty of competition. And hard-to-find items can sometimes be found via the Internet. Furhtermore, in larger metro areas, one hardly notices Wal-Marts (yes, I know their invasion of big cities is still ongoing).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 13, 2006 12:53 PM

Does anyone have any data to support these loss of mom-and-pop stores anecdotes?

Posted by: beloml on November 13, 2006 1:01 PM

I have mixed feelings about Wal-Mart and big boxes in general. (As I see it, there are really a number of different issues to consider.)

I also think that sometimes the discussion can be clouded somewhat because of imprecise language -- that, at least sometimes, people may be arguing about the glass being half-empty vs. half-full, and that more precise language (e.g., 4 oz.) might be helpful in clarifying the issues.

Along these lines, I hope that Francis Morrone can help clarify some things he said in his comments to the October 17th post, "A Week with Bill Kauffman, Day Two," that Donald linked to and which he said inspired this current thread. In the comments section to that post, which I read only yesterday, Francis Morrone says, "We [in Brooklyn] have had a major high-street revival in the last ten years [.e.g.,] Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Flatbush and Church Avenues, and others are positively electric."

Coincidentally, earlier yesterday I happened to be on Church Avenue (the section between MacDonald Ave. and Ocean Parkway), and I didn't notice any revival -- at least along that particular portion of Church Avenue. Of course, that doesn't mean that other parts of Church Avenue (which is quite long) haven't experienced the revival that Francis is talking about. But if Francis has time, I hope he can 1) be more specific about which portions of Fifth Ave. in Sunset Park, Flatbush and Church Avenues he is talking about and 2) be more specific about what he believes constitutes a "revival" and retail "electricity."

(Yesterday, I also coincidentally walked along the "F" line that Tatyana mentioned in her comments to the same post, and shopped, just for the experience, at the gigantic Shopwell -- maybe ten times the size of a "regular" NYC supermarket -- under the "el" on MacDonald Avenue.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 13, 2006 1:03 PM

Wal-Mart definitely pays notably less than Costco, worse benefits too, I'm not sure where people are getting their info from here. Wal-Mart has also been nailed for some serious violations of labor laws, although I'm guessing that's over after the fines and lawsuits. Making people work unpaid overtime is sleazy.

Wal-Mart has a lot of market power since they are such a large purchaser. They tend to try to take their suppliers captive and squeeze out all the profit margin from the supplying companies. They've driven people into bankruptcy. I see this as part of a general shift in power from suppliers to retailers that is ultimately driven by the presence of low-cost competition in China.

Of course, in a capitalist system paying low wages is not a crime, nor should it be, so long as they are above the minimum wage. If we don't like outcomes I'd rather handle it through some form of regulation of all businesses rather than picking on a single business.

In my consumer experience Wal-Mart generally offers worse goods and a poorer shopping experience than Target or CostCo at only mildly lower prices. So when I do have to venture out to the big-boxes, I generally pick the latter two over Wal-Mart to shop at. But other people's price/quality tradeoff might not be mine. I do think Wal-Mart is in some danger of going the way of K-Mart eventually if its not careful; over the long run it's risky to be identified with the lowest price/quality market niche.

Posted by: MQ on November 13, 2006 1:07 PM

I just like Target way better. Better lighting, better layout, better stuff. But not much more aesthetically pleasing from the freeway.

I agree with the commenter who said that Wal-Mart's physical structure is instantly depressing to the spirit.

The political objection? I think it is also that it is just so big, and so brutal in its competitive tactics, so brutal on its suppliers. People hate the bullying part, even if they like the prices.

Posted by: annette on November 13, 2006 1:09 PM

Small showbiz aside: Walmart and Costco are such big players in the DVD market (I forget what percentage of all DVDs they sell, but it's something like 25%) that they have an influence on which and what kind of movies get made. Is it marketable to the WalMart audience? That actually comes up in discussions and calculations at the studios, or so I'm told ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2006 1:44 PM

Actually, the WalMart audience is pretty heavily into Fassbinder. I mean, why else would they stage such painstaking re-enactments of his movies in the store aisles?

Posted by: stephenesque on November 13, 2006 1:59 PM

Are the people like me -- who like towns and cities and walking, and who find the freewayscape thing off-putting -- so rare?

I was getting ready to answer your question, and then...

Small showbiz aside: Walmart and Costco are such big players in the DVD market (I forget what percentage of all DVDs they sell, but it's something like 25%) that they have an influence on which and what kind of movies get made. answered it yourself.

Posted by: communicatrix on November 13, 2006 2:40 PM

thank you, Stephen; you make my blog-reading-lunch-minutes a bit more bearable.

Posted by: Tat on November 13, 2006 2:52 PM

Wal-Mart CEO on Charlie Rose: we are trying to diversify our products and bring in a wider range of customer (paraphrasing).

Next week, a skirt in Wal-Mart shows up in my Style Magazine as an affordable, officially 'cute' pick of the week. Hmm....

Posted by: MD on November 13, 2006 4:05 PM

According to the UFCW union website, Wal-Mart claims an average national hourly wage of $9.68 an hour (compare this to the average wage of unionized grocery workers at $10.61/hour.) In Arizona, my home state, most retail sales jobs start at minimum wage, far less than that paid by Walmart. Remember, too, that only about a third of Walmart’s workers are in sales/retail. The other two-thirds are better paying.

My teenage son is working in his first job – an assistant tennis pro -- for about $6.50/hr, perhaps a bit more. His friends are trying to get jobs at Walmart because they see it as one of the best paying jobs available to them. Believe it or not, there is competition for Walmart’s low wage jobs, primarily because Walmart is scrupulous about not hiring illegal immigrants.

I admire people who work hard for a living in any honest, respectable job. I doubt the people working at Walmart would agree with your condescending judgments on their employment decision. Perhaps they look at you (as you fight rush hour traffic, coddle your tailored suit, and worry over your investments) and prefer working at Walmart, with a company-provided shirt, cheap health care and dependable income. Perhaps they’re rejecting your overpriced mom-and-pop stores, urban lifestyle, and aesthetic snobbery.

From their POV, your upper middle class employment/shopping decisions may seem odd, if not irrational.

Posted by: Kris on November 13, 2006 6:54 PM

I live in small-town Upstate NY (Geneva - pop in the 10-15K range) where we're having a big fight over a Superwalmart. We have a regular one already, of course.

What interests me is that there is a big outcry (well, among my colleagues, at least) about Walmart crushing local retail and nothing at all about the planned Lowes. Are they THAT much nicer? Do we just hate the local hardware store owners so much that their small businesses don't count as worth preserving?

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on November 13, 2006 7:16 PM

Let me tell yall something about Walmart and Sam's you might not know -- lots and lots of those mom-and-pop small bizzes that are so beloved are run on the availablity of Sam Walton's retailing genius. Off-hand, I can think of a BBQ stand, a diner/truck stop, a gas station, a quasi-legal poker room, and my own dumb campground. None of us would have been in business without 24-hour access to inexpensive (practically wholesale) goods to supply, stock and sell.

Try to sneak into a Sam's Club during the morning merchant'll get a good feel for just how much the whole big-box phenomenon mean to our entire economy. It ain't just cheap blouses and cut-rate eggs.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 13, 2006 10:00 PM

"I seldom hear complaints about Costco. Could that be because Costco executives, unlike many at Wal-Mart, tend to donate to Democrats? -- jes' askin'."

I really doubt that, Donald. Walmart gives tons of money to outright leftist organizations: thee NAACP, National Council of La Raza, and right-wing groups like American Enterprise Institute. They buy everyone off.

Not long ago ago the Wall Street Journal published an article about how when department stores close Walmart takes over the lease but leaves the store empty to prevent future competition. They do this with their own stores too: closing the smaller boxes and leaving them empty when they build a mega-store nearby, again to keep competitors from moving in.

A few queer types might find the empty boxes eyesores, but others will no doubt summon up wistful memories of shopping trips long gone by, and so find one more reason to praise Walmart. And pragmatic folks lacking such sentiments will surely praise this tactic as capitalism that need apologize to no one.

Posted by: James M on November 15, 2006 6:40 PM

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