Monday, November 29, 2010

My love/hate relationship with Walmart

Yes, I know. Big Box Stores are inherently evil. They drive the Mom & Pop stores out of business and contribute to suburban blight by their very presence in the landscape. They encourage consumerism, retail therapy, and those plastic bags pollute the environment. Plus, they're everywhere you go.

At the same time, my local Walmart always has a great selection of fresh produce at reasonable prices. I can buy groceries and pick up a pack of socks at the same location, saving me time and gas that would otherwise be spent driving to another store. I like their garden center in the spring and summer. Much of my garden started from four inch pots of plants I picked up at Walmart over the years. And I love the ciabatta bread from their bakery.

Please understand that I do support the locavore movement. I do try to buy local produce, bread, and plants when it's convenient and affordable. However, our local farmer's market is small and very limited in the winter months. And while I can buy fun, locally knitted socks in a rainbow riot of funky colored wool, they aren't cheap and no one around here makes basic, white athletic socks or a normal pair of underwear.

I also understand why so many people absolutely loathe Walmart with every fiber of their being. It's a big store and some people dislike having to hike from one end to the other. Some people hate to go in for shampoo and a loaf of bread because they know they'll wind up spending $50.00 on items they don't really need. Others dislike how the bulk of goods for sale at Walmart aren't made in the USA and are transported from God-knows-where to get to our particular store. The Walmart parking lot is a sea of asphalt that contributes to heat retention in the summer and funnels oil and other nasty chemicals into the water table.

Some people dislike Walmart because it's so plebian. I once had a supervisor who hated Walmart with a passion. One time I asked him why he felt so strongly about Walmart and he launched into a heated rant over the size of the store, the origin of the merchandise, and the associated urban blight, all reasons I had expected to hear. Surprisingly, he didn't stop there. He also didn't like the people who shopped at Walmart as he felt they were all fat slobs who didn't know any better and he just didn't like to associate with that type of people. In his mind, we should all shop at other stores even if we had to pay more for their goods and services. Strangely enough, Target and Lowe's didn't seem to bother him even though those stores shared the same clientele in this area as Walmart and would jump to be as successful as Walmart given half the chance.

I pointed out that not all of us had a salary that allowed us to shop at other business that charged more for their goods and services. (I wisely refrained from pointing out that he was also responsible for setting my salary.) I also said that some people would rather save their money than buy items from a store with a more exclusive name as 1) they saw no need to spend more for the sake of feeling smug and 2) the more exclusive store probably imported their goods from overseas just like Walmart. I don't recall my supervisor's exact response to my comments, but the conversation rapidly died after that.

In retrospect, I could have asked my supervisor if he ever took his kids to fast food restaurants as I'm certain McDonald's put some of the local burger joints out of business back in the 1970s, but I didn't. I could have also asked if he invested in the S&P 500 as Walmart is certainly part of that stock index. Many people who dislike Walmart and avoid it all costs conveniently forget that it's a heavy weight member of the consumer staples sector when investing their money.

I invest in the S&P. My parents own stock in Walmart. So I shop at Walmart because the stores fulfill a need for me and because I benefit from their profits. On the other hand, rarely a week goes by that I don't come home from Walmart without another war story to tell about their employees or management. Yesterday I bought four Cortland apples from a bin marked $1.67. I assumed they were $1.67 a pound. Imagine my surprise when they rang up at $1.67 each for a total of $6.68. I asked the cashier if that was correct and he shrugged his shoulders. When I told him that $6.68 for four apples was just insane, he shrugged again and said I could go to customer service if I liked.

I liked. While waiting in line at customer service, I overhead an older couple in front of me talking about produce not ringing up at the correct price. The woman in customer service asked the older gentleman, "What can I do for you, sweetheart?" in a bored tone and the gentleman rightly responded, "I'm not your sweetheart." He had been overcharged for both apples and grapes and told the customer service rep that he was outraged at the sloppy pricing. The woman behind the counter immediately countered that the produce department was checking their pricing right now and she would refund the difference. When the older lady and I commented on how high the incorrect prices were, who knows how long they'd been incorrect, and how many people may have purchased produce without noticing the price gouging, the customer service rep got very indignant. "They're changing the prices now! I'm going to give you the difference!" Then she called someone in the produce department to tell them the prices were incorrect and how the customers "were fussing over the whole thing," as if her job wasn't there to attend to customers and make sure their transactions were correct in the first place. In the end the woman behind the counter simply gave us our money back in order to get us to leave. Not the best example of customer service and certainly not the most satisfying transaction I've had at Walmart.

No, Walmart isn't perfect. I would like to see them offer more goods made in the U.S. and even from local producers. I would like for the company to be a little less aggressive in its business practices. And while Walmart does give charitable donations to certain organizations and initiatives, I think it could afford to give a little more considering its global profit margin. On the other hand, Walmart has a substantial profit margin for the benefit of its investors, of which I am one. Like I said, it's a love/hate relationship.

PS: I do use my own recyclable bags at Walmart (and many other stores). I also recycle most of the packaging of the goods I buy. And I'm more likely to buy a t-shirt and jeans from a thrift store than at Walmart....just not my socks and underwear.

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