Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Defense of WalMart

I'm disappointed in Bruce Springsteen. Not that he cut a deal for WalMart to be the exclusive retailer for his new album. But for the fact that he's apologizing for it now. Hey, you took the money from them. Now own up to your end of the deal.
The deal has been heavily criticized lately, presumably because of WalMart's unprogressive employment policies. I'm not terribly familiar with these specific criticisms but I do know that the average WalMart employee is currently in better shape than the average Circuit City employee. Also, whenever I visit WalMart I noticed that much of their customer base are working class folks both minority and not. They seem to think that the prices are better! Bruce should just say "Hey, I sing about the common folk and the common folk shop at WalMart".
Over the years I have seen some pretty wild criticism of the WalMart corporation. Things such as "They're destroying downtowns!". Huh? Downtowns have been in decline for nearly 50 years and in areas that have never seen a WalMart. Demographic trends and the creation of the interstate highway system had far more to do with the decline of the traditional downtown area than the arrival of WalMart stores. And "they put small mom and pop retailers out of business!". And Target and Costco don't? Is it just me or didn't Best Buy and Circuit City virtually eliminate the small (what we used to call) "stereo shop". Lowes and Home Depot haven't eliminated the old fashioned hardware store?
My own feeling is that much of the anti WalMart sentiment is classist in nature. I think that it stems from the fact that WalMart emerged from the rural South and that its customer base does have a lower than average income. They had a CEO named Bud and for years were the only major retailer willing to make a major investment in mostly rural Southern communities. Turns out that they were very innovative in their industry and by the time the other retailers noticed, WalMart was far and away the leading retailer in the nation. But still they were perceived as a "redneck" operation. After all, many of their execs spoke with a Southern accent.
Yes, they are a tough employer and a tough customer. But people forget the other side of the coin. Walmart's presence lowers prices overall and that helps those with lower incomes. Two years ago, WalMart lowered the price for several common prescriptions to $4. Is it strictly coincidence that Target and CVS just happen to now have $4 specials on those very same drugs?
I'll close this post with a personal anecdote. Several years ago I had to take a business trip to Melbourne, Florida. When I awoke at my hotel and got dressed, I noticed that I had forgotten to pack any ties. So I looked out the window and saw that a WalMart was across the street. And it called to me! I immediately made the short journey and bought 2 ties. I was ready to look my best for the rest of the trip. It was seven in the morning! And I thought to myself "What a great country this is, that I can buy myself a couple of ties before breakfast!"

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