It usually happens once a year. I am drawn — like a suicidal moth to a flame — to the fluorescent glow of Wal-Mart.
After a lengthy hiatus, I recently found myself in the throes of this big-box nightmare, and I have no valid excuse. I was not vacationing at a tourist-laden beach destination, nor was I stranded in a small town where the Big Blue Beacon of Bargain Shopping has supplanted local mom-and-pop operations.
I confess: I am guilty of Wal-Marting in my very own city.
The excursion was spurred by home improvement needs. In a quest to find the best paint, I consulted Consumer Report and found a bargain brand that only takes one coat. Considering I loathe the tedious task of painting, I was sold — that is until I learned Wal-Mart is the only retailer that carries the product.
My husband — combined with my own laziness and reluctance to labor through two coats — convinced me it wouldn’t hurt to break the boycott I instituted following last year’s lone Wal-Mart outing. (That shopping trip resulted in the purchase of a poorly stitched tent made in China. A subsequent downpour during my outdoor adventure resulted in a cold, wet, unhappy camper.)
Despite past misadventures, I caved.
So here’s how it went: Enter Wal-Mart. Navigate my way to paint section without falling prey to maniacal yellow smiley-face icons advertising “Always low prices” on crappy products manufactured by obscenely cheap labor overseas. Select paint colors: “Smoky Mountain” and “Manatee.” Wait for assistance. Embark on mission to find help. Ask indifferent employee to weigh in on difference between eggshell and matte finish. Receive little more than a blank stare. Arbitrarily decide on my own. Exit store armed with four gallons of paint and a newfound aversion to mankind.
Did the paint go on in one coat as promised? Sure. Did I spend slightly less than I would have at a smaller, locally owned business? Probably. Was it worth it in the end? Absolutely not.
That’s because what Wal-Mart giveth in dirt-cheap goods, Wal-Mart taketh away ten-fold.
Since its humble beginning in 1962, Wal-Mart has grown to become the largest retailer in the world and the largest private employer in the United States. And while the behemoth employs more than 1.2 million Americans, those jobs pay about 16 percent less than the average retail wage, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is largely due to the fact that the company has successfully blocked employee efforts to unionize over the years.
To follow through on the promise to “roll back prices,” Wal-Mart is notorious for strong-arming American vendors to provide goods for less. In turn, suppliers move their operations overseas, where workers toil away for 50 cents an hour. That means American jobs are lost, resulting in the need for more — you guessed it — low-paying Wal-Mart jobs.
Several years ago, the PBS news program “Frontline” embarked on an investigation to answer the question, “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” The result was a four-part series that weighed Americans’ obsession with bargain shopping versus the loss of manufacturing jobs, the shuttering of local businesses, and the dwindling character of rural America.
“On the one hand, you can say that poor people need cheaper goods, and this is a tremendous service for the United States,” Edna Bonacich, a sociology professor at the University of California, explained on the “Frontline” series. “But on the other hand, that is ignoring that people are not just consumers, but they also are workers, and they are citizens, and they have other interests besides being a consumer.”
It is understandable that consumers feel compelled to buy food and clothing and Nintendo Wiis at the place offering the lowest prices, particularly during tough economic times. And for some, shopping local simply is not an option.
But for me (and I suspect for many other Wal-Mart shoppers, both frequent and sporadic), it is an option, even though I by no means have a tremendous amount of disposable income. In hindsight, it makes sense to pay a higher price for a tent I can use more than once, and I can afford to shell out a few extra dollars for a can of paint, even if it means applying two coats.
Shamefully, there is a locally owned paint store two blocks from my Germantown home. Next time I’m in need of supplies, I’ll be sure to call on Dages Paint. I’m certain they can explain the difference between eggshell and matte.