Thursday, March 12, 2009

In defense of Wal-Mart

Nathan sent me this article today, and it set me off on one of my favourite rants.

I'm a fairly left-of-center Democrat, but I part the ways with the Unions. Just like many conservatives may be Republican but don't care for the Religious Right, I can be liberal without caring for the Unions.

Wal-Mart is one of those "too big to fail" companies; I worry about them getting so big that they effectively become part of the government (see, but they are big because they are successful at what they do.

I live in west Houston (yes, Virginia, there really is a "West Houston", it's that area of Houston west of Westchase, north of Alief, south of Northwest Houston, and not Katy. It's bounded by Katy Fwy (IH 10) on the north, Kirkwood Rd. on the east, Westpark Tollway on the south, and Highway 6 on the west). There are literally thousands of restaurants and individual proprietorships of all kinds (auto repair, computer repair, shoe repair, retail clothing; well, retail EVERYTHING). Many if not all of these places have "Help Wanted" signs in the windows. In this part of Houston, everybody who wants to work at minimum-level jobs is doing so.

Know where it's hard to get a job? Wal-Mart, Kirkwood Rd. I asked the manager there one time how many openings they had; the answer: they have about 20 apps on file for each open position.

Now, I've worked (at three points in my illustrious career) in a small business. In one, the proprietress (it was while I was in graduate school) was basically loony (I love her, but she's nuts). You never knew from day to day when you walked in the door which of her multiple personalities you'd encounter. Of course, she couldn't pay much and there was no hint of ANY benefits--and the way she ran her business, it was a day-to-day thing whether she'd have the money to pay me, so there was no security either). The other two were more substantial, but the security thing was nonexistent, as were the benefits.

Where else but Wal-Mart could you get a job paying you $10/hr (here) that offers health insurance (at all), sick days, profit-sharing, and job security (just don't screw up and you keep it for life)?

If you want to know how to kill a giant American institutional variety store with unions, you need look no further than Sears, Roebuck. Once one of the biggest companies in the world (and ubiquitous in the US), Sears couldn't compete with Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, and all the other discounters because the cashiers there were making $20/hour (THEN). They had to build those high wages into their prices. In order to try to compete, they kept lowering their quality; eventually, nobody wanted to go there.

They also goofed with their store strategy; they went heavily into the mall business (Simon Properties started out as a division of Sears), and tore down their existing stores in favour of the new mall stores. They were locked into expensive long-term leases and couldn't react when the discounters started putting big boxes into the suburbs.

Speaking of big boxes in the burbs, I don't notice many vacant parking places at Wal-Mart (pick one) on any given Saturday.


Small towns: I lived in one for 15 years.

In my youth, I idealized Malvern, mainly due to the fact that, as a kid, I had tremendous freedom there, as opposed to "home" in Dallas or San Antonio or wherever. The big city is a tough place for kids to run around; there are these enormous thoroughfares, crazy drivers, and of course the crime is omnipresent. None of these existed in Malvern and I could go pretty much wherever my bike would take me. There were many stores in town where everybody knew me, my grandparents, and frankly my entire family (we were related to some of them). I could walk in, pick up an item, and charge it to my grandparents (and they never told me no, and I never abused the privilege because I knew how fast it could disappear). This seemed great to me, and was a powerful incentive when I moved home to Malvern in 1994. I'll call it the Mayberry effect.

Yeah, well, what Sheriff Taylor and Aunt Bea never told us is how difficult it can be to carry on MODERN life in a small town.

When I moved back in 1994, Mitchell's Model Market (owned by Mike Burris, my friend and Mitchell's son) was still in business. I had a charge account there (little green ledger cards at the register; they sent me a handwritten bill at the end of the month). THAT was fun!

Um, unfortunately, I was astounded at the prices; I'd been used to shopping at Tom Thumb and Albertson's in Arlington, Ralph's in LA, Kroger Signature in Nashville, and Rainbow in St. Paul. Mitchell's was much more expensive, and they had a bunch of "off brand" stuff; the produce aisles were sparse and the stuff they had was obviously and definitely of inferior quality (unless they managed to make a deal with some farmer on a load of locally-produced whatever, and then it was heavenly---local tomatoes, lettuce, etc.---but that was an INDIVIDUAL TRUCKLOAD. Once it was gone, it was back to the substandard stuff. When the Burris family sold the store, it went steadily downhill until I wouldn't even go in there.

So, when the local Wal-Mart upgraded to "Supercenter" status, that was the only place I shopped for groceries. I was sorry for the mom-and-pops, but geez Louise! Inferior goods at astronomical prices in small, dirty, crowded stores? Why should I do that to myself just to "support" them?

It was the same with clothing. Malvern used to boast several "nice" clothing stores. I went into Sampson's one time looking for a suit. I was determined to buy it locally instead of driving to LR to Dillard's or wherever. The one and only suit in my size (this was before I was fat) was (in 1994!) a brown polyester LEISURE SUIT (not making this up) with dirt/dust on the shoulders where it had been hanging for the past decade or so. Can I have some stack-heels with that, please, in patent leather? How about a pimp hat?

Went to buy a lawn mower. No Sears at the time in Malvern (they'd left Malvern about the same time as Penny's). Went to the local Ace Hardware store. Off-brand mowers for $500 and up! I STILL view this as very expensive, and this is 2009. So, off I went to Wal-Mart to buy a Murray (built in Nashville, Tennessee) for $200. The next one I bought was a Craftsman from Sears---in Hot Springs---.



You know, I believe we should do what we can to protect our environment. It is, after all, the only one we have. I do not believe (as the wack-o's do) that mankind is the scourge of the earth.

Sprawl, while not really a good thing, is the current state of the country. We all live in the suburbs (or even exurbs), and drive our gas-guzzling cars individually instead of taking mass transit. We shop at these big boxes instead of charming boutiques, again driving our guzzlers over those brand-new, cool, 8 or 20 lane freeways, getting off on massive surface streets. Or, we sit stopped in traffic on something like Birmingham's 280 or Northwest Arkansas' Business 71, bumper to bumper.

I am a living example. I bought a 2,400 square foot house in the burbs instead of a charming 500 square foot 1 bedroom 1 bath condo in the Rice/West U, Montrose, or Heights areas---not to mention those charming bungalows in the Heights: 900 square feet, built in 1924, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, ancient plumbing, no insulation, $350,000.

Why did I do this evil thing? Because I have dogs and want a back yard. Because I was tired of living in an inner-city neighborhood (as I've done several times) with the freaking crackheads, methies, etc. I was tired of worrying whether a stray bullet would get me while I worked in the yard. I was tired of the constant police presence. I was tired of the run-down look. (I drove to the Heights day before yesterday, and despite all the hype, it reminds me a whole lot of Malvern---bombed out and depleted). Because after living in NYC, I realized that I LIKE having my own car; it's a way-cool thing that I have these two steel conveyances that I can hop into and go anywhere I want, any time I want. If I need to go to the airport at 4:30 am (shudder), at least I don't have to wait on the platform for a train like I did in NYC.

I'm going downtown to the library in a few minutes. I can take the bus; it runs on Briar Forest right down the street from my house. I can hop on Metro on BF, ride to the transfer point, then transfer to a bus that lets me out at the door of the library. All for $1.00! Why don't I do it then? One hour and 10 minutes (according to the schedule), one-way. I can get in my car, drive downtown, park (for $2), go in, get my books, get back in my car, stop off at Starbucks for a latte', run by the cleaners and the bank, dash into Wal-Mart, drop the package I need to mail by the post office, and return home BEFORE I could complete a round trip to the library. That's why.

We live in the burbs because we LIKE it. Burbs = sprawl. Inescapable.

Bottom line: The small businesses weren't all that great. Those I named above offered NO health insurance, NO benefits at all really, and job security (again) was a day-to-day thing. Their offerings were small (because they couldn't afford to maintain inventory), off-brand (same thing), and exhorbitantly overpriced.

Wal-Mart offers a decent wage and some pretty good benefits to its workers. Do I want to work there? HELL NO! But then, I don't want to work at a convenience store, either. I don't want to work at Disney World, but I sure love going there.

Wal-Mart offers a huge variety of goods at very low prices. Sorry, small locals, but if you can't compete, you just can't compete.

We live in the burbs and have houses, cars, and lawns. We do that because we want to do so. We go to Wal-Mart because we want those low prices (everyday!).

Wal-Mart is not the problem.



"Buy American"

Okeydokey, I'll do just that. Ummm, let's see, where exactly would I go to do that????

*Chevrolet Cobalt: Hecho en Mexico (all of them).
*Chrysler Sebring: Blame Canada! (South Park)
*Every television set sold in the US: Mexico or other Central American countries, or China
*(High quality men's)Shirts: Caribbean Islands, Canada. (Dillard's, Macy's, Nordstrom, Neiman-Marcus, Saks---all of them made elsewhere).
*Suits: China. Yes, China. They're sewn there. Then marketed here under some very large, very well-known brand names.
*Socks, all other sportswear: China.
*Lawn Mowers, other garden equipment: Mexico, China. Murray moved their plant to Mexico.

Sensing a trend?

Wal-Mart is but one of the American stores selling cheap foreign manufactured goods.

I've told my Hathaway shirt story many times: I loved Hathaway shirts. They were just the best. Well-made, beautiful, always starched up nicely, always sized appropriately, seams straight, hand-made look. Made in Maine by New Englanders.

The last one I bought was $97 (in about 1995 or so). $100 for a men's shirt! Dillard's started offering those very nice Roundtree and York shirts for a quarter of that (they're now up to $50). Made in China, but equivalent quality. Hathaway couldn't compete and went out of the shirt business (I think there is still a company with that name but it is not the same company).

Where do I go to "buy American"?


  1. Good post. About the only thing I don't buy at Wal-Mart is roast beef. The last two or three times I've bought roast beef at Wal-Mart, it's been entirely too salty, and I haven't seasoned it any differently. So I have determined that they are putting some kind of preservative in their beef (at least of the roast beef variety) that makes it salty. I will buy ground beefo there.

    I do most of the grocery shopping, but I asked Larry to pick up a few things for me one day after work. So of course he gets more than I had on my list. But when he got home, all he could say was look at all I got for $25.

    I have a friend who works in sales for a grocery wholesaler, and she firmly believes that it is immoral that her company sells in volume to Wal-Mart at lower prices than to the smaller grocers. I say that's free enterprise and what allows Wal-Mart to do what it does well.

  2. Free enterprise is free enterprise.

    Look, I'm for morality in business. I think the bankers selling loans to people who couldn't afford them IS immoral.

    Wal-Mart selling in bulk? If I make a penny a piece on a product I'm selling you, and I sell you 100,000,000 units (let's say I'm Hershey and I sell you 100,000,000 chocolate bars), I've just made a million dollars. If Joe's General Store in Fifty-Six, Arkansas buys 100 of them and I charge Joe $0.10 each, I've just made $10.00. Do the math. I'll go broke selling to Joe, even at 10 times the profit that I'm making off Wal-Mart. Plus, I've got to charge Joe shipping on those $0.10 candy bars (which, I might add, he'll sell for $1.50 each, while Wal-Mart is selling them for $1.00).

    Oh, by the way, ask your friend if she shops at Target, Kroger, Safeway, Publix, or any other national chain, or eats out at McDonald's or Joe's Crab Shack or J. Alexander's or Hooters or some such. They all do the EXACT same thing, except they don't do it as successfully as Wal-Mart. It's pretty hard to find anyone who doesn't shop at a national chain SOMETIME.

    Frankly, other than convenience stores, I'm not sure where to FIND an "independent" grocer in Houston. We have H-E-B (I love H-E-B, it's the best store I've seen, and it's a regional chain, HQ San Antonio), Randall's (used to be the pride of Houston, now owned by Safeway), Kroger, Wal-Mart, Super Target, Food Town (almost exclusively a "black" store; no prejudice, just fact), Fiesta (also a regional favourite! The Mexican grocery store chain; you can get all kinds of delicious things there), and Whole Foods. Honestly, I don't recall seeing any home-owned grocery stores here.

    We shop H-E-B, Kroger, and Randall's before anything else.

    And, in honesty, I should say: I try to avoid Wal-Mart, although I wind up there once a week or so. I try to make a list and get everything I need at one whack.

    Call me names all you want: the reason I do it that way has nothing to do with Wal-Mart; it has to do with the customers. In Houston, you see a cross-section of the world at Wal-Mart. But that's actually another blog post! Coming up next!