Wally World

Blazon of a retail giant, or a sigil of greed and evil?

This past holiday season, I remember seeing a lot of complaints about Walmart. Most of these complaints were about some very understandable concerns. Walmart is notorious for treating their workers like used tissue paper by offering poor wages and little or no health insurance. They are also infamous for stocking unreliable or mediocre products. But I think the biggest thing people dislike about Walmart is that the Walton family is rich beyond the dreams of Avarice, while the people who shop and work at Walmart are frequently at or below the poverty line. There have been many attempts to cut the retail giant down to size, or at least force them to pony up about certain things, but in the end nothing ever happens to them. Personally, I doubt that anything ever will.

For starters, Walmart is very hard to avoid. Those big stores are like fat stones in a garden bed: they just keep turning up. In many areas of the country they are the only viable source of dry goods for miles around. They’ve been known to run other, locally run stores out of business so as to insure that they are the only game in town. (That’s certainly unethical, but the notion of “kill or be killed” is an inherent fact in a free market economy, so it happens.) In my home area, there are a variety of dry good stores, but for certain products it’s either Walmart or nothing. Some have said that in cases like that it’s better to “do without” than patronize Walmart, but is that realistic? I recently needed certain tools and equipment to handle a problem in the yard, and the only source for the equipment I needed was Walmart. Personally, I avoid Walmart whenever possible, but sometimes I have no choice.

Second, and more importantly, are the prices. Around here, Walmart tends to have the lowest prices and the widest selection within a 70 miles radius. One of the reasons Walmart is so successful, and why the Walton’s are so repulsively rich, is because of the generally low prices and huge retail net. However, those prices are kept low largely by limiting employee benefits and stocking cheap, imported products. So the low prices aren’t without penalty. Even so, people around here are well aware of the unethical methods Walmart uses to insure such prices and selection, but that doesn’t stop them from patronizing the stores. Why? Because people have needs, and Walmart can fulfill them at a price that is generally lower than most others. That’s as far as the thinking generally goes, and that’s as far as many people are able to think. When you’re talking about a population base that is struggling to live paycheck to paycheck, going with the lowest price available is almost a necessity. People who are living at or below the poverty are even more restricted, because they may never have the luxury of considering anything other than sticker price.

It’s common knowledge that patronizing of Walmart will allow them to continue to pull their unethical shenanigans. But when you’re talking about people who have to regularly choose between fighting corporate corruption and keeping clothes on their back and diapers on their children, it’s pretty clear which way they are going to go. The battle against Walmart’s corruption will have to be carried out by the people who don’t need to rely on Walmart. Unfortunately, they are greatly outnumbered by the people who do.

That’s probably why all the news stories about Walmart’s lack of ethics have not, and are unlikely to affect them. Walmart knows where they stand in the current economy: they have made themselves indispensable. People the world over would have to completely stop shopping in the stores for several straight months before any boycott or embargo brings results. Given everything that Walmart has done to secure their position in the world of consumer commerce, forcing them to change would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to achieve. From a business standpoint, that’s a brilliant position to be in. But for consumers, it stinks like a thousand angry skunks.

As my wife says, the Walton family are modern-day robber barons; throwbacks to the Gilded Age. Truer words would be hard to find. Now if Walmart starts paying their employees in company script, then we’re really in trouble!