Wal Together Now

Wal-Mart is perceived as a place for white trash to shop, a low-cost, no-class, generic warehouse frequented by people with no sense of style, taste or hygiene. And yet Wal-Mart is ALSO perceived as a major threat to American society, a ruthless conglomerate that is destroying small businesses while taking over the world.

Which is it? Is it a barn for mullet-headed dimbulbs and their dumpy, spandex-clad mistresses and snotty-nosed filthy children to tromp through in search of truck tires and beer? Or is it a shrewd corporation so thorough in its scheming that it has managed to become loved by ALL types of consumers?

It’s both, apparently. The Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles in January examining Wal-Mart’s power and influence and how it affects middle America. Regular people shop at Wal-Mart, too, apparently — lots of them. The store’s prices are often unbeatable, and with the advent of the Wal-Mart Supercenter — which combines traditional Wal-Mart merchandise with a fully stocked grocery store — it has become possible to do ALL your shopping in one location. Some of these Supercenters also have a McDonald’s, an optometrist and a family portrait studio. I understand plans are underway to install trauma centers, slaughterhouses and roller coasters in some of them.

Do you need a loaf of bread, a Bible and a lawnmower? Head to a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Does your shopping list include batteries, a typewriter and pants? Wal-Mart is the place for you. Need a bookcase, some potted plants and a Big Mac? The Supercenter awaits!

I can do this all day, folks. Want a gallon of ice cream, an engagement ring and a fishing pole? Wal-Mart! A scented candle, three aprons and a pair of dice? Wal-Mart! A gun, a muffin pan and a Ouija board? Wal-Mart!

So what’s the problem? Well, some people question Wal-Mart’s tactics. Any time a new store goes up, the competition generally forces nearby businesses to go under, with the Supercenters having that effect on grocery stores, too. Employees from those ruined businesses have to look elsewhere for jobs, and many of them wind up at Wal-Mart — where the pay is generally much lower than it was at the now-defunct stores. In addition, Wal-Mart executives have been known to eat the flesh of sacrificed virgins at their board meetings, and company founder Sam Walton was behind a plot to blow up the moon.

Wal-Mart also won’t let its employees join unions, so they can never go on strike for better wages. (Which reminds me of a tangent: The grocery workers in California went on strike a while back, and while visiting family there, we went to one of the affected grocery stores to cross the picket line and gawk at the strikers. I was disappointed to discover they were just standing there. They had signs, but they weren’t marching around or chanting catchy slogans, much less slogans that rhymed. They didn’t even seem to care that people were shopping at the store. They were just standing around, talking. Well, sometimes I stand around and talk, and I certainly don’t have a job. Does that mean I’m on strike, too?)

On the Wal-Mart issue, I am torn. For one thing, I have a hard time believing Wal-Mart can be some kind of evil genius mastermind when its headquarters are in ARKANSAS, for crying out loud, a state where people sometimes go to football games wearing fake pig noses but no shoes.

But more importantly, the Wal-Mart Supercenter near my house is convenient and cheap. I suspect many people feel that way. Yeah, Wal-Mart might be bad for America in the long run, but darned if it’s not inexpensive to shop there now! The average American loves its low prices and its extremely loose dress code.

But on the other hand, capitalism is like striking slow-moving pedestrians with your car: fine in general, but it should not be taken to extremes. Some have predicted a scenario in which Wal-Mart establishes a de-facto monopoly on retail merchandise by forcing all its competitors out of business with its low prices. Then, having no one to compete with anymore, Wal-Mart is free to raise its prices, and customers — whose loyalty to Wal-Mart helped it become a monopoly in the first place — have no alternatives.

That is a dark future indeed. My head swimming with conflicting thoughts, I went to my local Wal-Mart Supercenter in search of resolution, hoping to find peace. I often go there for sanctuary anyway, but today it seemed especially appropriate. As I wandered the aisles, occasionally pausing to reflect or to shoplift a small piece of merchandise, I drafted a mental list of Wal-Mart pros and cons on the notepad of my brain.

PRO: Between Wal-Mart and NASCAR, at least we always know where the white trash are, should we ever want to destroy or imprison them all at once.
CON: Having places such as Wal-Mart for white trash to congregate might serve only to encourage them to reproduce.
PRO: If it weren’t for the success of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, Sam Walton’s heirs would be ragged, pitiful millionaires, not the highly polished billionaires they are today.
CON: Wal-Mart prices always end in strange numbers like .84 or .96, instead of the traditional .98 or .99 we’re used to. Surely this is un-American in some way.

What I saw at Wal-Mart during my fact-finding mission were hundreds of shoppers of all sorts, mostly middle-class, but a few who clearly felt they were shopping “beneath” themselves, which they probably were, but hey, when you need a laundry basket, live bait and a thong, only Wal-Mart will do. People don’t think about the Wal-Mart corporation’s long-term plans while they’re shopping. They’re just living their lives, getting their errands run as efficiently as possible before scurrying back to their homes.

And that’s why the whole argument of whether Wal-Mart is good or bad for America is moot. Even if continued patronage of the store would lead to the slow, lingering death of every man, woman and child in America tomorrow, people would still shop there today. Humans in general aren’t good at modifying their current behavior in order to make the future better, and Americans, with their I-want-it-NOW philosophy, are even less good at it. So despite the protests from certain groups, Wal-Mart will continue on whatever path it’s on, and only time will tell whether that path is beneficial or detrimental. Only one thing is certain: sunblock, Cheerios and a pocketknife. (Sorry, I just wanted to get one more in.)

This column took a long time to write. I first thought of it in January, when the LA Times ran its series, and I wrote the outline of it at that time. Then I was stumped, so I put it aside and came back to it periodically to fine-tune, add and delete. I am pleased enough with it now, though not as pleased as I ought to be, considering how much work it was to write. Given that, it ought to be my favorite column ever.

Discussion question: What might someone be planning that would require them to buy any of the trios of items mentioned in this column?