Friday, January 25, 2008

A discount soap box

I watched this movie tonight -- a one-sided borderline propaganda piece that while shameless in its agenda offered some staggering facts.

80% of crime in many small towns happens in Wal-Mart parking lots -- they have security cameras, but no one is paid to watch them unless there is a threat of unionization at that particular store

there are more than 30 million square feet of empty Wal-Mart buildings across the US -- buildings that were abandoned by the company when it built another bigger building a few miles away and that are way too large to support any other local business

Costco pays its employees, on average, 47% more than Sam's Club

Wal-Mart managers are trained to direct their "associates" to federal programs such as Medicaid and WIC

My hometown is one impacted by the now familiar story of what seemed like a Godsend at the time -- finally you wouldn't have to drive more than a half an hour to buy the things you want (not necessarily need, as the hardware store and Keith's Mens Shop were adequate for a whole lot of years), there were jobs to be had in an area where they didn't come easy, and people who needed to pinch pennies were able to get more for their money.

Single service businesses dried up.

A few years later they emptied out the building and put a new one up within easy walking distance of the first one, new and improved with a grocery store. It put the nail in the coffin of smaller, independent grocers like Big Bear and IGA. Today, as in far too many small towns, there are virtually no sustainable retail stores in the few blocks that are considered "downtown", and there are a few newly wealthy people who sold their land for big Wal-Mart bucks so there would be a little extra parking in the giant lot. And the store is always obscenely busy.

It's easy in a small town to think you don't have choices. "There's just nothing here" is a common refrain, so people go where everyone else goes. And let's be honest -- it makes small town thinkers feel lucky, and taken care of, and sometimes even a little glamorous to have the ability to shop for fine jewelry 24 hours a day while you run in for a quart of milk. The Wal-Mart closest to me when I lived in Nashville sold pony kegs of beer. It's the next best thing to a high school reunion -- gotta put your make-up on to pick up the last Christmas gift you need while visiting the folks. It's a blue collar country club, a place to see and be seen.

For all that is corrupt in Washington, there is no Wal-Mart anywhere in the district. The obvious reason why is space, and stores like Whole Foods are having a similar impact on neighborhood bodegas as gentrification plows on in areas like this (where I have my heart setting on living when I win the lottery), but I hope that on some level there is such a sense of community among DC's residents that they would never allow it. It's the difference between small pockets of people living among each other in a tighter space and the spread out small towns where if people feel desperate they feel desperate alone.

Wal-Mart has clearly figured this out and works it to their best advantage, which is what businesses do. But small town communities are starting to see that cost outweighs the benefits and are pushing back hard through organizations like this, and winning (very Harry Potter of them). It's difficult to imagine what my hometown would look like today had Wal-Mart never come in -- who knows, the Craft Mall might have emerged as the retail giant or Stiffler's may have been resurrected. Or it might have been some other company with the same idea. Either way, I know first hand that the people in these towns are inherently good and are just trying to live the best life they can, and if they find a bargain along the way, well, they never really shopped downtown anyway.

Please consider not shopping at Wal-Mart (except when buying hypocritical gift cards for one's grandmother).
The graphic is from The Onion, of course.

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