The thing about Wal-Mart

I was on vacation last week, and lots of thoughts were kicking around inside my head. I even managed to get one out into this blog already, but for the most part I had neither the access to a computer nor the inclination to sit down and ruminate for the half-hour or so that I need to get one of these together. But I’m back to reality now, so the blog posts will start coming again. You’re welcome.

So on the first night of vacation, my family and I stayed in a hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And we get up to start the day and spy a Wal-Mart on our way out of town. There are Wal-Marts sort of close to where we live, but we don’t ever go and shop there. The Walton family doesn’t need my family’s money, after all. But there didn’t appear to be too many other options available between the hotel and the highway, and people do tend to try new things on vacation, so why not go in and see what the hubbub is about, right?

The first thing I noticed was the enormity of the store. I started instinctively taking pictures of the place, to try to convey its tremendous scale. But if you shop at Wal-Mart, you already know. Acres of goods, all with those low prices they love to brag about so much. Multiply that by the thousands of Wal-Marts there must be around the world, and the scale of this company is is either impressive or repulsive, depending on how you look at it. My vote is for repulsive.

I say that for two reasons. The first is that, for all of the jobs Wal-Mart has you believe they create when they open up a new store, there is also a lot of wreckage that comes with it. Fresh fruit markets–which I’m very fond of–can’t possibly match Wal-Mart’s buying power, and so when money is tight (as it always is nowadays) the consumer is going to buy the $1 bag of apples before they buy the $2 bag of apples. Any business that might have carved out a niche in a particular market, whether it’s in sporting goods, watches, prescription filling, or anything else, may as well close up shop when Wal-Mart comes to town. Market reality, yes. The world I want to live in, no.

But there’s another reason to hate on Wal-Mart. And it’s because they feed into the American zeitgeist of consumption. If they didn’t create it, they certainly feed on it. Or rather, they make it possible for all of us to feed on it.

Wal-Mart stores are a testament to the fact that Americans love to buy things. We have the money (or at least the credit necessary to create the illusion of having money), so why not go to a place that will give us more for the money than anyplace else? It’s the reason we’re so overweight as a people (and sadly, that does include me. I’ll be a hypocrite to suggest otherwise). Not only is it food, but it’s clothes, household items, and everything else Wal-Mart sells, even if it is made by cheap Chinese labor. We’ll buy it without a second thought, since consumerism is instilled into us from the day we’re born. That’s the real American Way here in 2011.

All these items, and all of them so cheap, simply encourages more and more consumption. So even when the economy turns bad and people have less money than they used to, they can still go and buy cheap things at Wal-Mart because, unfortunately, nobody can out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart. Places like Target and Meijer can compete and live to tell about it, but Wal-Mart eats their lunches at the end of the day.

It’s ironic that I’m discussing Wal-Mart on Labor Day. I’m sure that they made more money than usual today, since people had the day off of school and planned end-of-summer cookouts as a result. But Wal-Mart will fight, with every fiber of their being, to keep unions out of their stores. So rather than getting paid extra for working on a holiday, Wal-Mart “associates” don’t get to share in the company’s extra prosperity on a day like this. But the stockholders certainly do.

Things like overtime and health benefits, which many people benefit from and expect to have in their own jobs, are routinely denied by Wal-Mart. They can’t keep their “low prices” business model in place by doing that. But again, the American consumer either doesn’t understand this, or simply doesn’t care about it.

For my part, I won’t be visiting Wal-Marts anymore now that I’m back at home. However, I’m certain that the Walton family has enough other families dependent on their business model to survive.  I just hope that we, as a nation, can eventually survive them.

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