December 7th, 2006

ozarque figure

Defending Wal-Mart; part one...

Here I am, still outnumbered, still hunting for the article I need, but willing to give this a try, starting with some personal material before I move on to the Reconstruction-of-Proto-Athabaskan-Pronouns-scale material. Just to put us all at ease.

I'd also like to stipulate two things at the very beginning. (1) Wal-Mart has thousands of stores and more than a million employees; I am absolutely willing to admit that in all that crowd and array you are going to find some stores that are badly run and miserable to shop in, and you are going to find some abusive managers who do despicable things to the employees, and you are going to find some employees who are surly and unpleasant. In a sample that large, some bad apples are certain to be present, and it's unlikely that the executives in charge of weeding out those bad apples are always going to be aware of who and where they are at all times. (2) I am also absolutely willing to agree that there have been a number of splendid small independent stores that have had to close their doors because Wal-Mart moved into their area, at a great loss to everyone involved. That's a misfortune, and I regret each and every example -- especially the one Meg Umans described -- and wish it could have been avoided.


When we first moved to the rural area where I live, it had no Wal-Mart. It had quite a few small independent stores. The nearest towns that had a Wal-Mart (or any of the large chain stores so many of you dislike) were a thirty-minute drive away. This meant that if you were too old, or too ill, or too disabled, or too poor to make that drive you were entirely at the mercy of the local stores, which charged whatever they darn pleased for their goods. I don't fault the local store owners; they didn't overcharge because they were vicious and wicked. They did it because the customer base of old/ill/disabled/too-poor-to-own-a-car individuals wasn't large enough to support their businesses, and local people who didn't fall into that customer base didn't patronize their stores. The more their high prices drove people away, the more they kept raising them -- just trying to earn a living --which drove even more people away. This was a self-reinforcing loop, and it wasn't pretty; it also made the store owners bitter and cross -- a natural and predictable result, but not helpful.

The only way small independent stores can survive the arrival of a Wal-Mart is by providing merchandise in a market niche that Wal-Mart doesn't offer, at prices people can afford to pay, plus providing some unique service that Wal-Mart can't be bothered to provide. Wal-Mart employees will then actually send people to the independent stores. As in: "I'm sorry, we don't have any feminist science fiction, and we don't special-order books, but if you go down to the end of the parking lot and turn left, there's a bookstore about two blocks down the street that has exactly what you need." People who have been accustomed for all of their professional lives to charging whatever prices they darn please and stocking whatever they darn please aren't always ready to change their business practices so drastically.

When Wal-Mart came to our area, some of the local stores did indeed find themselves unable or unwilling to stay in business. On the other hand, it was a sort of miracle for many people who suddenly found it possible to buy basic supplies at reasonable prices right in their own town. There are plenty of families here whose kids wouldn't have decent school clothes and who wouldn't be able to feed those kids decently if Wal-Mart hadn't arrived. There are elderly people and disabled people for whom Wal-Mart is equally a blessing. In an ideal world, of course, other solutions would have been provided for them; in this world, that hadn't happened.

It's true that our Wal-Mart's starting wages are low. It's also true that a lot of people have jobs at our Wal-Mart who wouldn't have been able to find jobs anywhere else locally, and who aren't physically strong enough to work on the line at the turkey plant for a similar wage. It's also true that our Wal-Mart aggressively moves people from entry jobs right on up into management instead of bringing management in from outside -- standard company policy -- which means that starting at a low wage doesn't have to mean being stuck at that low wage forever.

Finally, before this gets way too long: Our Wal-Mart is always there when help is needed. Always. When the animal shelter needs an auction to raise funds, when somebody's house burns down and they have no insurance, when somebody needs major surgery and there's no way to pay for it, when the kids at the high school need money to go march in a parade halfway across the country .... in all those situations, and many more, Wal-Mart is there running an auction in its parking lot, and is there with a check to contribute as well.

A few recommended links....

"What Does the War on Wal-Mart Mean?" is at http://www.city-journal.org/printable.php?id=1333 ;

"Progressive Wal-Mart. Really" is at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/27/AR2005112700687_pf.html ; and

"The Wal-Mart You Don't Know" is at http://www.fastcompany.com/online/77/walmart_Printer_Friendly.html .