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Wal-Mart store becomes unwanted fixture in neighborhood

My take on Wal-Mart's presence in the region, and my confession: I've been there
I've been to Wal-Mart a few times, about a dozen times or more. Before last year, the only time I'd ever gone to Wal-Mart was to see how much the mailing packages were, and to buy an orange juice. That was years ago. Then early last year, I finally broke down and went to the nearby Wal-Mart, about a ten minute walk, to buy some groceries. It wasn't a terrible or even a bad experience. When I was in the store, I wasn't oppressed by the fact that I was inside a Wal-Mart, shopping.

My mindset wasn't: I've heard a lot of negative things about Wal-Mart and I'm going to go there and see if it's all true. Nothing could change what I think about Wal-Mart. Yet I'm interested in culture, and Wal-Mart has become an iconic symbol of American culture in the last 15-20 years, so the reason for my patronage of a Wal-Mart store was, in part, to observe the culture of the place.

I also knew that one small shopping trip at Wal-Mart wasn't going to greatly affect the company's fortunes one way or another, or have much of an influence on anyone (e.g. by walking down the street with Wal-Mart grocery bags, which is kind of like advertising). And I knew I wouldn't lose any sleep over it.

I've always prided myself on not going to Wal-Mart--not just in not going, but in barely acknowledging that it's there. Wal-Mart has always felt like an outsider to me. (As I'm writing this, I realize that this is less the case now than, say, a year or two ago). A company from the South, that for some unexplainable reason was now in my city. I used to view the stores, and still do to an extent, as not just a southern import, but as a new and unnecessary concept that had been foisted upon the Northwest: the mega-store. So not only was it the brand I was wary of, but also this new concept which, like the brand, had to be aggressively sold to the public.

The first Wal-Mart came to Vancouver in about '96 or '97. It was built in a large field next to I-205. I vaguely remember that field. It would've been a great place for an employment resources center, or a community center, or pretty much anything else other than a Wal-Mart.

I never went there, back when it was first built. In the late '90's I couldn't even afford a sausage mcmuffin at McDonald's, (unless I'd just donated plasma--yuck).

Within a few years, another one was built up in Hazel Dell. Then another way out east of Vancouver in the area between Vancouver and Camas.

I'm a stubborn person and I don't think the Wal-Mart zeitgeist penetrated my consciousness much over the years. I didn't long to go to Wal-Mart, didn't covet their products, etc...Even when I was working and had money, I wasn't tempted to go there. There's just so much else to choose from. There are layers and layers of stores to buy groceries from. Who would ever have thought more choice was needed?

Fast forward to 2007. As noted, I decided to go to the local Wal-Mart for a small grocery trip. It wasn't one particular thing that compelled me to go there--there were several factors. For one, it's only about a ten-minute walk from where I live, and since I don't drive, buying groceries there would be easier than going to my regular places. The question really was: why was I avoiding Wal-Mart? (it's an easy question to answer) Secondly, as noted, I like to observe culture, and so going to a Wal-Mart, a new experience for me, would let me observe a little of the Wal-Mart culture, if not the larger culture.

I even kept in mind the alleged heroic role that Wal-Mart played during Katrina in Louisiana. Mayor Ray Nagin praised the company, set up a command center at a Wal-Mart store, etc...They outperformed the government in disaster response, by some accounts. Hearing about that back in '05 might have subtly influenced my decision to go back a few more times, (last year). Not that my view of Wal-Mart had changed at all, but I was able to imagine the Wal-Mart-in-the-disaster-zone scenario. I could pretend that there's a disaster, and Wal-Mart is the only hope for food and supplies.

Just before the new year, I saw Naomi Klein on the Charlie Rose show, talking about her excellent new book, The Shock Doctrine. Rose asked her about Wal-Mart's role during Katrina. He asked, in effect: Do you think Wal-Mart was acting only out of selfishness? Don't you think they genuinely care about the community, about helping others? She responded, in effect, that the system is set up that way, so that the government fails, Wal-Mart becomes the hero, and the march to privatize disaster response, and everything else, continues.

Rose kept questioning her about this--they had a lively exchange over this question of Wal-Mart.

I'm sure Naomi Klein is right about the problems with the system: if either government or business fails--if one of them fails--then the other gains, which means that they both gain, because they're both so intertwined. (Wal-Mart isn't mentioned much in The Shock Doctrine, but there's a very good chapter on post-Katrina New Orleans. I think Rose brought up the question to challenge notions of corporate greed, blindness, opportunism, etc...These topics are amply covered in the book, especially the section on Iraq).

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The dilemma I had with going to Wal-Mart for the first time was: I was always proud of not going there, of being able to say to people: I've never been. By going, I was setting myself up for some self-questioning in regard to principles.

I only went once or twice in early '07, and my shopping was strictly kept to groceries. The experience was a little different than I expected: lots of space, and there's no real effort on the store's behalf to try and Wal-Martize the customer. I should've known it'd be large--it's Wal-Mart after all. On the second point, Wal-Mart likely doesn't need to overdo it in the stores, since their m.o. is to put the store down and create a kind of consumer vacuum in which people are helpless but to go there.

I kind of expected employees walking around saying, "Welcome to Wal-Mart. Glad you could join us. I'm so-and-so and for the remainder of your shopping experience, I will be here to help you..." etc...

Of course, I wasn't impressed with the place. Later in the year I went a few more times.

Around Christmas time, I was talking to my mom, and I told her I'd been going to Wal-Mart. I said, "I know I shouldn't, because..." and then went into the well-known negatives about Wal-Mart: they drive other, local businesses out of business, they don't allow employees to unionize, most of their stuff is made overseas, etc...And in talking about this, I convinced myself all over again why I shouldn't go to Wal-Mart.

Once again, as in the past, I'm now not likely, or very unlikely, to go to my local Wal-Mart. But only about a month after talking to my mom, I ended up going again.

Originally, I was going there to observe the culture, and/or pretending that there was a McDisaster and only Wal-Mart could give me the food I need. But if I go to Wal-Mart now, what does it mean? What am I saying?

Are you Wal-Mart Experienced? Have you ever been... 06.Feb.2008 17:15

Well I have.

I do think people who don't like Wal-Mart should go there. You don't have to buy anything, but it's important to see, just like it's important to know what Bush and Karl Rove are up to. The thing that always strikes me is the social stratification, the demographic of a large Wal-Mart crowd. If you care about people and egalitarian principals, you should look at them. These people are being squeezed to where they have little choice but to shop at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart lobbies heavily for increases in minimum wage. Why? People who earn minimum wage live at subsistence levels and they take what money they do have to Wal-Mart. Increases in minimum wage go right to Wal-Mart's bottom line. A real catch 22 isn't it?

This is the dark side of capitalism, and not just capitalism, but monopoly capitalism and fasicsm. People are forced to subsistence levels of income, one company drives out all competition through its pricing power, it becomes the only game in town and that translates into political power which reinforces itself. If the Dems and Republicans really cared about free markets, Wal-Mart would have restrictions on where it can place its stores and how big it is allowed to become.

Just for the record... I don't have health insurance. I can pay $27/month for the medicine that keeps me alive at a local business, or I can pay $4/month at Wal-Mart. That extra $23 is my entire gas budget for a month. I don't like it, but with fuel costs up and everything else, I don't have much choice, and that's the elite Rep/Dem game plan.