Dear Rob Walton,
Please know that I am neither jealous of your position as chairman of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. nor bitter about your reported net worth of $26.1 billion (chump change compared to Bill Gates’s $67 billion). You made only about $440 million in dividends last year, so, no biggie. I don’t harbor hard feelings. But I need to make a few points.
Until recently, I was unacquainted with Walmart on a personal level, unless you count my son having been fired from his high-school job stocking the candy aisle for declining to work on the night of the first Passover seder. Last summer, though, my husband and I purchased a lake cottage in a small town in southwest Michigan, and—you guessed it—Walmart was pretty much the only shopping choice. We found one small grocery store with a limited selection, but you have no doubt driven out every other local retailer trying to make a go of it. Some call this phenomenon the “Walmartization of America,” and I am against it.
When I was a kid growing up in Indianapolis, we shopped at D’Arcy’s for school clothes, Schoener’s for drugs, and Atlas Supermarket for food. A familiar butcher who called me “Potato Chip” always had a bag of my favorite snack ready. The owners of those stores made a living in small part because of our family, and I am proud of that. None of them took home triple-digit millions, but they survived. And now look. The places are all gone. Your stores span entire blocks, destroying the indigenous fabric of our cities and towns and wiping out nearby businesses that can’t compete. Your prices may be cheap. But your stores cost a lot.
And then there’s the matter of employee well-being. The sub-poverty wages you pay are no secret, nor is your policy of hiring part-timers to avoid enrolling your workers in company health-insurance plans. This pushes more people into Medicaid, which we taxpayers fund, and lines your pockets at the same time. Now that I think about it, I am bitter.
After a few visits to your jillion-square-foot big-box behemoth, however, a funny thing happened: I began to like it. This leaves me conflicted, like my friend Ann, a raging liberal who tromped through the store with me one day, grousing about how much she hated Walmart for its family-unfriendly policies while carrying an armload of merchandise to the cashier.
We both feel terrible for the employees, especially the aged greeter who probably holds a cardboard sign on the interstate off-ramp to make ends meet. When I unload my groceries and sundries at the checkout lane, the cashier sometimes says, “Have a nice day,” and I feel guilty saying “You, too,” because I don’t see how that’s possible, considering she probably can’t afford a lot of the stuff that rides on her conveyor belt.
If I’m so hostile, you might inquire, what do I like about the place? Here’s what: the socks aisle, where I found a pair of low-tops that aren’t eaten by the heels of my sneakers. I like the fabrics, which make me wistful for the matching dresses my mother used to sew for my sister and me. I like the hardware section, where I bought an eight-gallon Shop-Vac to clean the spiders out of our garage. I like the dandy three-tiered drying rack I bought for my laundry room, and I like the 98-cent movie candy—the same stuff the theaters charge five bucks for! I like the produce, which remains fresh because it turns over so quickly.
Know this, though: I don’t believe for a minute that you buy from local sources. I’m really sure you’ve got representatives in overalls scouting farms for seasonal peaches and apples. Because of my distrust of your ads, I have not sampled the “choice premium” steaks alleged to be as good as those served at the best steakhouses.
On one of my ventures into the store, a woman staring at five-pound bags of cherries started up a conversation that began with, “Can you believe we’re buying groceries at Walmart?” to which I responded, “Huh? Umm.” This didn’t stop her. “Well, don’t buy the meat!” she commanded. “One time my dog was sick, so I hid her pills in Walmart ground beef, and even she wouldn’t eat it.” She said she was planning to buy from a cattle farmer on her road, and would I be interested in going in on a side of Hereford? This was my cue to head to the wine aisle, another place I happen to like.
Here’s what I don’t like: the carts, which are rusty. I don’t like the ladies-room sinks that look like livestock watering troughs. I don’t like the dog-food–size bags of no-name cereal such as Tootie Fruities, which aren’t fooling anyone. I don’t like that McDonald’s is inside the building, which grosses me out, even though I like McDonald’s in freestanding locations. I don’t like the parking lot at night, especially the time I swear I saw a standoff between the Sharks and the Jets by the garden center. On the other hand, I do like the low prices, although you should know that I found swimming-pool noodles at the dollar store for, well, a dollar, while yours were $1.99.
There you have it. I admit to my love/hate relationship with Walmart. I recant what I said earlier about your ridiculous income and believe you lucked into the lofty position because your deceased father, Sam Walton, was the chain’s founder. Talk about swimming in the deep end of the gene pool!
I got used to your South Haven location, but I won’t miss you next summer, because, guess what? A Meijer store is under construction right down the street!
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue.