From the Ground Up

by

Published: July 17,2000

Is Wal-Mart really that bad?

America’s giant retailer has been blamed for running Mom and Pop out of business, destroying downtowns and being just plain offensive. In some communities where Wal-Marts were being proposed, local groups actually organized to stop construction. There are consultants who make a living selling advice to other merchants on how to compete against Wal-Mart.

Someone in academia even photographed several Wal-Mart stores in far-apart locations, hung the pictures side by side and initiated a touring display to art museums using the theme that a Wal-Mart can be anyplace in America.

Is Wal-Mart really that bad? Let’s consider another point of view.

In the past decade, downtowns all over America have been making a tremendous comeback. Reinvestment in smaller communities’ downtowns has been phenomenal, especially in light of the death sentence pronounced on them not so many years ago.

While those opposing construction of new Wal-Mart stores received media attention, many public officials counted on the resistance blowing over, which it almost always did, so that the new store could be built, the town’s market area increased and more sales taxes collected to operate local government.

Some officials have even dared asked the question: What do we have to do to get a Wal-Mart built in our community?

The sameness of each Wal-Mart has a lot more to do with efficiency and branding than it does about destroying a community. Americans, after all, prefer chain retail outlets because of their sameness and consistency, not because of their quality and uniqueness.

I could go on and on, but I’ll pause here, let my word processor catch its breath and ask you to do some thinking on your own without my sounding like I’m lecturing.

CASTING STONES

When was the last time you shopped at a Wal-Mart store? More than once I’ve observed condemnation of “the Wal-Marting of America” at some public meeting only to see the condemner be greeted at the front entrance of you-know-where. It gets doubly ironic when such a person drives his or her 12-mile per gallon SUV with the “Save Our Planet” bumper sticker plastered on the tailgate to the local Wal-Mart and takes up a parking space and a half.

We Americans are a schizophrenic lot, and to the rest of the world must be a gigantic enigma. We are concerned about diet and health, but become more obese each year. We give lip service to the need to do something about pollution, but buy more polluting vehicles and throw more litter from them with each passing day. We complain about high gas prices, but don’t reduce driving miles one bit. We decry excessive government spending yet we are happy when Congress adds $11 billion to the President’s defense budget because it includes projects in our home state. And yes, we complain about Wal-Mart as we walk out with purchases in hand.

Of course, all of this is not really as crazy as it sounds. America is simply becoming a more segmented society where each point of view gets expressed in its own way.

STORE AS SYMBOL

One of the lightning rods for this discombobulation is Wal-Mart. In its own way it has become the symbol of the incongruity in what we say versus what we do. Wal-Mart is real and visible and setting there on the side of the road dressed in its gray and blue concrete block work clothes at the back of a black asphalt lake.

Wal-Mart is not as bad as the worst that is said about it, nor is it as good as the best that is said about. It provides employment to a lot of people while offering customers a huge selection of merchandise at the best prices available. And that’s not all bad.

Please don’t misunderstand my comments. I think Wal-Mart could do a better job in coordinating its stores with local community interests and being more sensitive in that area. It’s just that I think we tend to blame the wrong people when we look up one day and see a chain of franchises and realize that our community looks just like every other community. Our local governments issue the building permits and enact the zoning ordinances. We elect the officials. Maybe we just need to look in the mirror a little more instead of throwing stones.

A few weeks ago my 13-year-old son and I were checking out at a Wal-Mart SuperCenter store. He looked around at all the departments and all the people and said, “This place is like the mall.” It was said that the mall replaced downtown retail. Is the mall being replaced?

One irony is that the aisles of the local Wal-Mart might just be the place in the community where more people of different races, socioeconomic levels and personal interests are around each other most often.

Is Wal-Mart really that bad?

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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