Sunday, January 17, 2010

I expand on my views of WalMart YMMV

I have gotten some heat for my take on WalMart. It has been pointed out that it's just as the sign says and too many "locals" have gone out of business and their jobs aren't up to the standards of other parts of the country and all that. I am also keenly aware of the impact those jobs can have on a poor community where before there was only a bunch of family-owned shops (who didn't hire and had high prices) or somewhat larger shops; again with the limited opportunities and high cost of goods.

More below the fold:

When WalMart moves in, they definitely put some businesses out and aggressively so. They hire people for small wages and all of that. BUT, and this is the big fly in that complaint and in that sign, those markets were dying anyway while WM is hiring; something that the rest of the stores weren't. It's not great work, but its work.

Add to that the prices are considerably lower and there's a lot more stuff - not terribly high quality but the people that go there aren't looking for high quality. They're looking for the basics of life and a step up.

Would I rather have a Target, KMart, JCPenny, Sears, Ames, Aubuchon? I can't see the philosophical difference. Would I rather have a town full of little mom-and-pops? Absolutely, but that business model has been declining for decades - nothing to do with WalMart. When's the last time anyone went to a mom-and-pop grocery anyway? Why is the supermarket any different from WalMart?

Look at those buildings in the photographs – all those first-floor stores were closed or closing before WM opened, now they're different stores but they're all alive.

Without some other draw, the little stores die. So the towns die. The buildings stand empty and the only thing you see in the windows is your own reflection. You may not want to accept it, but there it is. WalMart is usually trying to set up shop in a depressed, empty, God-forsaken part of town where the choice is WalMart or nothing. Until that changes, don't expect the voters to rise up swinging to get rid of it.

At right, you can see the farmers market that sets up every saturday. You can also see that the parking lot is full (at 9-10am on a Saturday). What you can't see is that maybe 90% of that lot is people who are NOT dealing with WalMart. They are shopping and working in the rest of downtown - probably a third of that lot will at least walk through the farmer's market. Because of WM, the city is more vibrant and alive than it was in the fifteen years before they arrived. There's even street fairs, for crying out loud. (I didn't realize it when I chose the photo but you can see the two white tents just up the street to the left - they close it for music and partying on Fridays in the summer. Everyone parks at WalMart and walks around. Great time)

Another thing that many people seem to overlook up here is that WalMart has a pretty tough slog getting into this state. They are continually roadblocked by activists using any legal means. I don't care about that (they've got plenty of money for lawyers and architects) but it does mean that the town can have a big input into the size and style of the building and in the parking lots and surrounding areas.

So WalMart can blend in, if the town has brains enough to demand it. Here's the Rutland one (off to the right of the farmers market picture) smack in the middle of the city. If you're not looking for it, you'd miss it. They rebuilt the whole plaza and blended in with the existing architecture. The whole area has been redone and the center of the City looks amazing. The combination of WalMart and PriceChopper has probably saved downtown.

The car dealers down the street and the minimalls and the strips are MUCH more ugly and dingy. If it weren't for a gigantic Hannaford's supermarket (even bigger than the WalMart or the PriceChopper), the other end of town would still be little more than car dealers and an empty department store minimall with eight empty stores and a Staples.

Size matters. WalMart has it. Hannafords has it. The market is changing and mom-and-pops aren't.

I'm not up-to-date with the hiring practices around the country, but I do know that the place here is always full and is always hiring people - which many feel is a strike against them - but then you realize that the people who are cycling through are not particularly good workers. (Like one of my students who couldn't understand why they fired her. I asked what happened. She worked two days, then skipped work four of the next five and had a "doctors excuse" for the sixth. They asked to explain herself and she told them to f&#^$ off and walked out. Then they fired her.) The ones that stay are better workers who wouldn't stay if it weren't a good decision for them.

A lack of health care is a knock against them until people think about how many other jobs and businesses don't bother either. It isn't ideal and it's why I think that health care should be treated like education - a basic option provided by the government for any of its citizens - if they want more, they can spend more if they want. WalMart has made the decision to not have it. Right or wrong. Although I'd like to see them have insurance for their people, I can't dictate their policy. (If only the CEOs would stop trying to run education ...)

I won't argue company politics because I think it's irrelevant but I will argue that WalMart, in its current configuration, is a better citizen in those towns than the companies it drove out. Look at those companies that were "driven out" – they were, by and large, going anyway. They paid as little as WalMart and they were a failed business model. People just aren't interested in paying full cost for low-to-average quality and that's what they were getting from the losers.

The companies who weren't driven out? They adapted and changed. They moved to better service or made a better product or slid into a niche. They can take business away from the WalMart if they do it right. True fact - the shops around the WalMarts up here have been doing very well because Walmart brings in business. They'll all tell you they'd much rather be within walking distance of WalMart than anywhere else in town, including the mall. Okay, the Book King is gone, but Amazon killed that cat. I had occasion to go to a small appliances store near the WM in mid-NH and got the same story. Business skyrocketed when WalMart came in. One near Brattleboro has brought a noticeable difference to that community as well.

I admit, I don't like the place, and I rarely go in because it creeps me out, but I can't deny the changes it made here.

Finally, I get irritated by the opponents who I've come into contact with up here (and your mileage may and probably will vary). It seems that the Vermonters against WM are wealthier, activist types who could afford to pay more or drive 30 miles to get groceries. They have this idealized sense of what Vermont "should be", totally at odds with the facts of life. Most of them moved in from out-of-state and are trying to keep their "farmer's paradise" and "more cows than people" fantasies alive. The ones who bitch the loudest come off as racist and classist. "WalMart's anti-union" is the call. Maybe so, but the minute one finally does open, it's staffed fully within a week.

My brother is a typical greenie-type: anti-WalMart and all it stood for … until one finally came to the town across the border in NH. Now, he says nothing and shops.

I paint what I see.

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