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Walmart, I Can’t Quit You

Nov 24, 2010 in Guest Posts

Copyright-restricted photo posted with permission of Florian Sprenger.Once upon a time in our little town of Nacogdoches, arguably the oldest continuous settlement in Texas, there was no Walmart. There were numerous stores downtown and few outlander establishments where we bought our goods. Our first Walmart was little more than a glorified Kmart, just another place to shop. Then the old Walmart was replaced by a Walmart Superstore. As it went up, potential patrons like my wife and I drove by the ground where it was being built and stared out at the rising structure that was about to replace so many stores and businesses in our town. At that moment, we did not see it as good.

But lo and behold, it was built, and we came, and we bought, and I was wrong.

We needed a Walmart Superstore in our town. We just didn’t know it. It has become a focal point. A place where bored and thrifty shoppers can congregate and entertain themselves by seeing what’s new and who’s there with a kind of wonderful East Texas local yokelism reminiscent of a group trip to foreign tourist sites.

Laying it on the line, Walmart is not considered a prestigious place to buy clothes, quality jewelry or Paris fashions. If you’re looking for sexy underwear, maybe Victoria’s Secret is a better place for you. There’s even a Web site that reveals shoppers at superstores in all their sometimes backwoods, broadass glory. The site’s secretive cameras focus on house shoe-shuffling women in muumuus all the colors of the rainbow (if the rainbow faded a bit and had some gravy stains on it). you’ll find huge, bearded men strapped snugly into overalls, and waddling patrons of both sexes in straining stretch pants, usually brown or gray (maybe that’s just the way I remember them).

Then there’s the rare bon vivant decked out in a cosmic, shimmering blue or green uniform that would shame a peacock, all of these stretch-pants regulars revealing way too much of their Grand Canyons, minus the donkey ride down (thank goodness), as they move off into the aisles searching for bargains.

There are gangs of overweight scooter riders, sometimes in corrective shoes that never touch the ground, whipping about with bags of open cookies in their laps, devouring as they shop, consuming enough calories to fuel an Olympic rowing team. Fact is, there’s something ominous about how the scooter riders congregate near the hot dog and ice cream aisles like motorcycle gangs, missing only the insignia on the leather jackets that read something like: WALMART ANGELS or BAD MOTOR SCOOTERS. They’re the kind of folks who look at you when you walk by as if, on a moment’s notice, they might snatch a can of potted meat and throw it at you because you’re ambulatory.

It’s easy to make fun of them because, dammit, they’re funny, and I’m ashamed that I think so. Missing teeth and plumber’s cracks are not a cause for celebration. Few of us wake up in the morning wishing we were overweight, underfinanced and unattractive with medical problems. But then, who is out there laughing at me? I’m not George Clooney material, either.

It seems the ones who make the most fun, like the ones who view the Walmart-hilarity Web site regularly, are small-minded, insecure turds who would not understand Mark Twain’s statement about there being “no humor in heaven,” meaning humor is primarily based on the misfortune of others. I can see the humor, too, when I’m in a mean mood. I’m not a saint, or I couldn’t write about Walmart’s clientele with an eye toward humor.

Let’s turn the dial the other way for a moment. Once, on a book tour in Los Angeles, I heard a well-dressed man ragging about Walmart to the desk clerk in a hotel, as if this poor wage slave had nothing better to do then listen to this ass-wipe ejaculate about the great unwashed. Well-dressed man was ragging while trying to bring the discussion to a higher ethical plane by talking about the cheap employment, foreign child labor and lack of benefits associated with these stores.

I got to say, I’m with Well-dressed man there. I’d rather not have my goods packed by children in diapers, foreign or otherwise. I’m all for folks being paid proper salaries, and given good insurance and better benefits, so that at the end of the day they can go home having earned more than enough to keep the gas from being turned off, and have more on the meal plan than a can of sardines, even if they are packed in springwater instead of soy oil.

Well-dressed man had one important thing to say. It was what motivated him the most. Walmart stores lead to the closing of downtowns. They do. No question about that. Not that this bastard had ever seen a small downtown, and the closest he’d been to Walmart was a scathing editorial in some newspaper somewhere. He looked at me and decided I should be brought into the conversation when all I wanted was to remind the clerk I needed a wake-up call. The man asked me what I thought about Walmart.

I asked if he had ever been in one. “Why, of course not,” he said. I asked him where he shopped. He told me.

They were expensive places. I told him, “you know, most of that stuff, except the stuff you don’t need, you can get cheaper at Walmart.” The clerk liked it. I liked it. I registered my wake-up call and went upstairs, left the authority on Walmart in the lobby, pissed off and pontificating.

If he had had heat vision, he would have burned me into a pile of ash and kicked it into the street.

Why am I defensive about Walmart? Let me tell you about the long-gone downtowns, my friends.

Before I do, I know you have some wonderful, cheerful, perhaps tearful, stories about the downtowns of your youth. Me too. I don’t want to hear them.

082910-Whitney, Texas - 050Let me tell you, the late downtowns in East Texas burgs were usually small stores run by locals. They generally priced things three times more than they were worth. Maybe they had to, but I don’t care. I don’t want to pay $30 for a hammer and a fistful of nails. If I wanted a banana, I had to go to another store. If I wanted to pick up a pair of shoes, another store.

The parking was minimal, and the choices were few.

If you worked, by the time you got off work, many of the stores were closed. Saturday, they might be open, but Sunday they were closed again. So for the working individual, the mother or father who had a kid wake up in the night with aching gums from teething, and you wanted something to make it all better, you had to wait until the next day. If you noted it was 7 p.m. and you were expecting dinner guests at 8 p.m., but forgot to buy hamburger for the meat loaf, you were, once again, screwed.

If you’re poor and barely making it, or even if your income is middle-of-the-road, it’s good to get what you need at slashed prices, anytime of the day, seven days a week, in a big, ugly, over-lit store that closes only on Christmas and half a day on Christmas Eve. If you forgot to get a gift card and a six pack of tall boys, you have to think, “To hell with downtown.” What we got now in our downtown are specialty stores that provide things we can’t get at Walmart, like maybe a stuffed deer head for that special place over the mantle. The stuff we really need, hell, it’s at Walmart.

Here’s something else. With Walmart in town, lots of people can be put to work, far more than downtown ever employed. Someone has to run a 24-hour store, check people out, sack groceries, push carts, place stock, work at the McDonald’s sequestered in the back. The workers have all skin colors, not something I saw a lot of downtown, except for immigrants unloading trucks. When I have a tummy ache from eating too many jalapeños late at night, I go down to our Walmart and buy Alka-Seltzer, run it through the computerized checkout, and I’m gone.

However, not before noticing that a large number of shoppers there look like those on that humiliating Web site, and a whole lot do not. Many are doctors and lawyers and teachers and pillars of our community, and a couple of guys out on probation.

As I catch my reflection in the automatic door on the way out, I notice one of those shoppers looks a lot like me. Am I on camera?

PS: The book racks at Walmart suck. Just being fair.

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of numerous novels and short stories. His work has received the Edgar Award, seven Bram Stoker Awards, a British Fantasy Award, and has twice been named a New York Times Notable Book, among other honors. The film adaptation of his novella “Bubba Ho-tep” was directed by Don Coscarelli and starred Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. His novel Vanilla Ride, from Knopf, has just been released in paperback by Vintage. He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Copyright-restricted photo (#1) posted with permission of Florian Sprenger.

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19 Responses »

  1. Well, I’m with well-dressed guy on this one. We’ve lived here for 3 and a half years and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in our local Wal-Mart. I’ve found the people who work there to be rude and unwilling to help and the lines to be long, and at least twice, the item I wanted wasn’t in stock. (The space was there on the shelf, but it was empty.)

  2. I’m with you on this one! My husband is a minister and we move around- in our last town (population 3000) there was no walmart… or anything resembling a walmart. Things in the “downtown” (aka the 3 blocks of horribly overpriced shops) were so expensive that it was cheaper for us to drive 1.5 hours away to the closest walmart to buy stuff.

    In our new town (population 7000) we have walmart. And I adore them. Ministers don’t exactly get paid a huge salary and we have 3 kids- I can buy them clothes at walmart cheaper than at our local second-hand shop. I can buy school snacks and juice boxes there cheaper than our local grocery stores. It is the only store in town who sells plus-sized clothing for those of us who have birthed 3 children and haven’t managed to return to our pre-children glory. Ours isn’t even a supercentre… just a plain old walmart… and it isn’t open 24 hours. But it is open a whole heck of a lot longer than any other store in town.

    I am thankful for walmart … I am sure they unethical practices but I am betting most big companies do. But they make it so that we can afford to feed and clothe our children. And I appreciate that. Plus they employ a whole lot of folks in our town who would otherwise be screwed.

    I have no lost-love for “downtown”.

  3. That’s easily the best defense of Walmart I’ve read. I’m a fairly regular shopper there, but solely because it’s cheap. I guess I had considered all the negatives but you bring up many positives I hadn’t considered. Still, their support of overseas child labor and their abuse of their employees makes them deplorable. Yet no one complains about Target and they do a lot of the same shit.

  4. Amusing and apt piece.

    I used to shop at Wal-Mart a lot. Then I started to notice some things.

    Clothes (business casual) — although the prices were about 1/3 less, the items seemed to last about half as long as brand name things. It was actually costing extra to buy at Wal-Mart.

    Food — some of the food prices were cheaper. But the store was arranged in a confusing way to get me to spend more time and to notice a lot of impulse items that were mixed in with the regular groceries. I was actually spending more per week, plus the time it took to park, get in, shop, get checked out, and get out of the store and parking lot was quite a bit longer than at my local supermarket, where I could just avoid the temptation of junk foods and preprepared food by skipping the aisles. It may not be just coincidence that all those Wal-Mart shoppers are so fat.

    Electronics — Wal-Mart often seemed to sell mostly “Wal-Mart special models” (with their own model numbers) of name brand electronics which turned out not to be quite as good as the models sold at other stores. A friend who is an electronics engineer pointed that out to me.

    And, as Mr. Lansdale noted, don’t even get me started on books, music, and videos.

    So I pretty much quit Wal-Mart. I guess if you were very, very careful in shopping you could come out ahead at Wal-Mart, but it would take a lot of time, effort, and discipline.

    I do like Costco however. They probably don’t have a store in Nacogdoches though.

  5. I’m with Mr. Lansdale on this one. Most of the criticism (that has some non-snobbish validity to it) pales when compared to the range of merchandise availability and affordable prices opened up by Walmart to people on the lower economic rungs, particularly in the early years of operation. The fact that the Walmart operation was/is a huge money making business for its owners doesn’t bother me.

  6. Hmm. Nice defense of Walmart.
    One thing you didn’t mention: Walmart is not only putting out of business the little downtown guys, but also the big corporations who can’t afford to shave another penny off their merch (look up Vlasic). And also the big Walmart-clone local chains — the ones started by our friends and families (like Meijer, in Michigan) — which offered the best of both worlds: staff who cared, plenty of variety, low prices, but not *quite* as low as Walmart.
    While shopping at Meijer once I found a necktie exactly like all the others on the rack except it was labelled for sale at Walmart and it cost $2 less than the others. Frustrating for Meijer, I am sure.

    Walmart threatened to put Meijer out of business. Meijer was forced to change, to stay open on holidays, to pay its staff less, to shave off costs here and there so it could compete with Walmart and stay open. Meijer stopped opening so many stores.
    Walmart gobbled up all the little towns Meijer had intended to move into.
    And Meijer became too much like Walmart. Uncaring, non-local, no fun to work for.
    Thanks a lot. Walmart. I won’t shop in your store unless I am desperate.

    • Good post Joe, and Walmart own the supermarket chain ASDA in the UK.

      I can’t comment on Walmart per se, but take on board the comments raised, as they do get bashed a lot, but rarely does anyone talk about the positive points.

      Ali

  7. Joe, Loving every word you said…agreeing with most. Witty in High School….and you have not changed. Love. It.

  8. As ever, a wonderful piece of writing, both entertaining and oddly persuasive. One element we should be worried about, though, as practitioners of prose, is that Walmart is also whupping mainstream booksellers, giving discounts that B&N, Borders and whoever else is left (not many) can’t match. Walmart sells bestsellers at a loss (as do Target, Costco and sometimes Amazon), all to get boots in the store to buy some HDTVs and sweatpants to go with the latest James Patterson or Sarah Palin offering. Their selection of books is pitiful (and generally repulsive), but they sell (like everything else there) in volume.

    I’ve only ever been to Walmart once (the only store open late on Easter Sunday, looking for soy creamer for some road coffee; they didn’t have it). In the course of our short visit we saw a pair of morbidly obese women on scooters wrassling over large stuffed Eastern Bunnies; a boy toddler in wife-beater t-shirt with diamond stud in his ear and other heartwarming visions of modern Americana. We visited the book aisle and were horrified. Scads of new “non-fiction” by John McCain, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, et al. Romance novels by the bushel. Twilight and Harry Potter. James Patterson factory offerings and a huge selection of devotional pap. I’m glad we stopped in, if only to sate our curiosity (88 cents for Banquet TV dinners? A bargain!), but I don’t think I need ever visit one again.

  9. Wow. Please tell me that this is not what Lansdale really thinks and that it is from the perspective of one of his uneducated characters. Or maybe it’s an experiment to see how easily the masses can be swayed? If not, I just lost A LOT of respect for him.

    Maybe I just care more about people than he does. Supporting the giant corporation that created the situation where you cannot afford to shop elsewhere is one of the most ridiculous things I have heard. It is up there with Bernanke solving the financial crisis.

    Quote from Walmart’s corporate fact sheet:
    “Our customers shop at our stores because they like the service our associates provide”.
    How do they reward these valuable associates? With an ANNUAL salary that compares to what the CEO makes in ONE HOUR.
    CEO Michael Duke’s Total Compensation for 2010: $19,234,268.00

    Walmart Sales Associate Pay: Range=$7-$14/hr; Avg.=$8.80/hr

    Walmart 2010 PROFIT: $14,355,000,000

    Does anyone remember when Walmart used to have products made in America? I vaguely do. Now everything they push is made in Asia. Superfun toxic toy time! But hey, it’s cheap-right Joe?

    And of course they look overseas for more than just manufactured goods. WalMart has shortlisted top Indian tech firms, including TCS, Infosys and Wipro, for an outsourcing contract potentially worth up to $500 million over the next few years. The retailer seeks to award multiple overseas contracts for managing its business applications and other back office activities.

    Why give those jobs to people in the USA. We’re only good enough to buy their cheap crap.

    I am broke but I support my local merchants as much as possible. Of course they cannot get the same bulk wholesale discounts that Walmart. Because of their base price/cost they will have to charge more than the ruling mega corps. So I pay a dollar more here or there. At least I know what I am doing is right and will make a local small business owner a tiny bit better off. I realize that I live in a society and it is not always just about me, me, me. I have spoken with enough small business owners to know that they are not doing what they do for a quick buck or hefty profit. Most are doing it because “it’s always been a dream to open a business”.

    I would like to hear back from Lansdale regarding this. He is one of the authors that I frequently recommend. I don’t won’t to throw my support behind someone with such callous and selfish views on small business.

  10. Joe, a well-written article and your points are well-taken, for the most part. Also note with pleasure a number of thoughtful, well-considered responses well beyond the norm for these things. That being said, I’m with Julie B. on this one. Full disclosure–I am a 30-year Teamster in a large metropolitan area in a very blue state. Once upon a time, I also plied the trade of independent mystery bookseller. I won’t deliver a laundry list of my complaints against Walmart, as they are basically the same as many noted here. I would like to make one point I haven’t seen here, however. It’s not just downtowns Walmarts kill–in the long run, they kill communities because once they are up and running, the money that flows into those registers doesn’t come back to the community the way it does with most small, locally owned businesses. Instead, it basically flows up the fiscal food chain to shareholders–so maybe you should ask yourself–and your neighbors–how many own stock in Walmart. Better yet, why not get Hap a job @ Walmart and see how it works out for him (Leonard’s way too smart to work for Walmart, but we knew that already, didn’t we?)…best to all in Nagadoches from yonder.

  11. Ther’s a furious brouhaha in Athens (GA) right now over the proposed construction of a new supercenter. The usual cries of “It will destroy downtown.” Downtown Athens is full of artisans, vintage clothing, and lots and lots of bars.

  12. I have mixed feelings about WalMart, especially now. My nephew died three weeks ago and my oldest son, who works at Wally World and was close to his cousin, was told that if he took off for the funeral, he would be fired. I work for another big box store, it’s Orange and sells hardware. I was paid for Independence Day, even though the funeral was on July 3 and I was scheduled to work that day. That’s a big difference between two stores that get a lot of derogatory remarks made about them. In the larger cities, I can’t even find a parking spot and I don’t like crowds. Give me Big Lots and Dollar General, any day.

  13. It’s like most things when you hear from someone who’s thought a little bit about something.
    It’s right but still only one view. Not the whole enchilada.

    If the 30% chance or so of a Nuke going of in a young ones lifetime are accurate and that one nuke leads to a multiple equation then I can give you a Common Sense view of why it would be better had the Damn Nazi’s won the war. And probably to someone Jewish.(Something about Control is better then Havoc)

    But it doesn’t mean its Right(Not in the moral of the story way)
    I sometime Loves me some Walmart. Though I think Target is much better in ways.
    But If I get all Google Eyed Misty about my Fellow man and the future were going to and how its different from the past and just how this pill is just a Slicker Turd on Cruise Control. I just cannot stop equating it to our or any other government and how quickly we can become pacified. Just make things easy on us and we will take that as the Famed common courtesy.

    The Fed told those Fools(our past selves) that a central bank would stop/control inflation.

    JFK was hated by the meanest Cow Licks in the Barn but it was some lone weakling nut that did him in(Honest Abe Ingine)

    It’s not about the Oil, Its about Freeing those dumb bastards

    “The Ruskies can now blow this planet up over 50 times, My God man What are we gonna do”
    “Were going to Def Con 60 Baby, Don’t sweat it”

    Etc and then on.

    Walmart is a divide and conquer story. A give em a little fix and then boost it up story.
    In Short its a tale about America and also the world. How simple effective strategies have proven to be effective since the dawn of Religion.

    Its a Fast Cheap and exactly what most people want, What the hell else ya want, Clean Air???
    If Grand Pappy Walmart was caught in a golden cave with Osama. We wouldn’t had gave two shoots. At least not enough to stop forking our bean sprouts to his Mega Church. It is in many ways what we want to grow accustomed too. And in business You can’t beat that.

    Whatever it is, Human Nature is at the mercy of it.

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