What could possibly threaten our nation more than terrorism? What is more deserving of our government’s attention than Iraq, Jerusalem, and Africa? Retail Corporate America. Target, The Home Depot, what remains of K-Mart, Menard’s, Lowe’s, colossal electronics/entertainment/appliance centers, to lesser degrees department stores and the more specialized chain stores found in malls, other chain stores. And more than anything else, the progenies of Sam Walton: Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Supercenter, and Sam’s Club.
This ever-rapidly growing chain is the nation’s number one peddler not only of cheap merchandise, but also of groceries, having taken the title from fellow corporate giant Kroger. It might seem like a far-fetched claim, that Wal-Mart is a greater threat to America than is Iraq. In-depth consideration of the Wal-Mart effect, however, presents a startling picture of capitalism gone awry.
There is no question that Wal-Mart provides jobs; a stroll through any of the company’s stores will show that many managers, stockers, clerks, and other associates are required to keep the store going. Furthermore, we must consider those behind the back wall of the retail area, warehouse workers, truckers, and others. However, it is misleading to say that Wal-Mart really furnishes quality employment for America. Wal-Mart hurts employment; particularly in the current economy, featuring skyrocketing unemployment and despair, Wal-Mart is helping to kill the American workforce. We must realize that the presence of a Wal-Mart means that somewhere in the surrounding areas, more than a few shops have closed. A Wal-Mart Supercenter, with its expansive grocery section, guarantees that even more local retailers have closed their doors. (Hardwares and other home/building stores suffer just the same from Home Depot, etc., and even, to an extent, from Wal-Mart and similar discount stores.)
Suddenly, these numerous jobs at Wal-Mart don’t do nearly as much for the workforce as it seemed. Entrepreneurs who were taking home reasonable salaries as the owners of stores are now left to find work; sucking it up and coming to work for the store which put them out of business means a sizable pay cut, as Wal-Mart enriches its fortunes by keeping wages low, and hours too. Meat cutters, trained in the art of providing excellent cuts of steak and other meats, now lose their jobs so that a chain which, not wanting to recognize or bargain with unions, sells case-ready meats instead of employing meat cutters.1
The impact of this supposed thriving job market is not felt only in the retail world. Being the proud American company that it is, Wal-Mart finds it much more financially appealing to sell wares manufactured in that bastion of democracy and civil rights, China. By choosing foreign suppliers over domestic companies, and destroying other stores which might purchase from these American manufacturers, Wal-Mart severely impairs the manufacturing of clothing and other products found in its stores, leading to massive layoffs of American workers. It is obvious that everyone wins when Americans must bow their heads in shame and head for the unemployment line while Chinese children are forced to work too many hours for too little pay in less than pleasing conditions so that Wal-Mart can kill competition and endanger America.
Wal-Mart claims to be a supporter of community. However, reality shows a greatly different picture. The mere fact that Wal-Mart stores exist as absentee-owner businesses means that towns and cities are left without the participation of the owner of one of the primary retailers in the area. Whereas local, independent retailers have no choice but to concern themselves with the community, the Wal-Mart that has run them all out of business has no necessity to do as such. If business fails, the company picks up the never-unpacked bags and ditches town, leaving an empty building, not to mention the countless empty stores downtown. More than a few occurrences are documented in which Wal-Mart has not claimed responsibility for litter and other problems in the areas surrounding its stores. (K. M. Fowler of Dublin, Georgia has been more than willing to share his problems with Wal-Mart with the Internet world*. He is by no means the only person to have done this. His website, listed below, offers links to comments both in favor of and against Wal-Mart, including some from current and former employees.) Oh to rent, and not own. What a relief of responsibility and duty.
Let us not ignore the amazing impact Wal-Mart has on the land and environment. Beyond the littering mentioned briefly above, we must consider the egregious size of Wal-Marts (particularly Supercenters), and the baffling size of their parking lots. Furthermore, how often does a Wal-Mart stand alone? Typically, it is the anchor of a strip mall or similar shopping complex, bringing in at least a few restaurants, probably a couple other small, more specialized stores, and respective parking lots. While empty buildings sit in the more compact downtown area, these new big boxes and the immense sprawl they drag with them destroy habitats, farmland, and attractive natural scenes. And let us not forget what happens when the company decides to put in a Supercenter. At least one, but possibly a few, Wal-Mart buildings are put out of operation. There are over two-hundred “dead” Wal-Marts across the country, wasting space that could belong to Mother Nature. Wal-Mart is to modern America what the white man was to the land of the Native Americans, a wasteful, ugly demon who takes up more than its needed share, ignorant and indifferent to its effects. It sacrifices natural resources and/or precious farmland in the name of selling cheap goods for exorbitant profits.
Wal-Mart (and similar stores) is not the continuation, perhaps even the improvement, of the free market. It is the end, the omega, the death of competition. Adam Smith spoke of an “invisible hand” which he felt would guide the truly laissez-faire economy (not that this country has ever been cursed with a completely free market). Wal-Mart has cuffed this hand to a pole, rendering it ineffective. This is not healthy for any part of the market. Even Wal-Mart shareholders and executives, and the myriad consumers who frequent the store and save considerable amounts of money are at risk. They are at risk of losing choice. Many have already lost choice, not to mention more active communities (Perhaps Wal-Mart lies at the core of the problems discussed in Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.), lower property values, and better paying jobs. However, Americans have a choice, and do not have to suffer from this eternally.
America can be saved. Just as the military and diplomats can work to solve the problems threatening America from abroad, the people (Remember us, the ones of, by, and for whom Abraham Lincoln said the government is?) can put an end to this internal self-destruction. Concerned citizens are not helpless in trying to combat this current phenomenon. They can work for legislation; limits can be set on the square footage of any new building; a small enough limit can severely inhibit the plans of Wal-Mart and its like. While few people care enough these days to look into it, laws, particularly the Federal Robinson-Patman Act, are in place to prevent companies from selling goods to stores below certain pries. It will never hurt for someone to ask his or her senator or representative to look into possible violations of such laws. And finally, the most damaging strategy the people can utilize is to simply boycott Wal-Mart, Menard’s, and other stores. Shop locally, shop independent, and defeat the current trend.
It may cost more to shop locally, but in the end, it is worth it. It sometimes hurts the pocketbook to frequent these businesses anyway; the convenience of having so many needs under one roof, at always low prices, always, often tempts consumers into spending more than they had planned on things they really don’t need. And more importantly: taking the power out of the hands of Wal-Mart and the rest of corporate retail and placing it in the hands of local businessmen and women holds promise for a better country. Reviving Main Street America is much more than some charming, quaint notion. It means more better paying jobs for entrepreneurs and American manufacturers. Communities will improve, as in-community business leaders become more plentiful. These are the people who sponsor Little League teams (and even sometimes coach them), donate to the local high school’s prom fund raiser, and attend church and sporting and cultural events side by side with us. Property taxes may increase, but that will only be a result of great property value, which in the long run tends to be an acceptable tradeoff. When Main Street is revived, and big boxes at the edge of town are emptied by corporations seeing business lost to local owners, these buildings and colossal parking lots can be put to better use: demolition and a return to nature.
When big box retail is driven away, the world becomes a better place. When America, unarguably the world’s only true superpower, can destroy its number one threat, it can better serve the rest of the world. Chinese children no longer will be forced to sweat over cheap junk sold by a faceless, heartless, soulless American corporation. As America becomes even stronger, it can pressure nations with questionable reputations, with more resolve, and then someday, maybe those Chinese children slaving away making shirts for not nearly enough money can find themselves sitting in classrooms, preparing themselves to be leaders in the future.
If the people rise up against big boxes, against Wal-Mart, if the planks in their eyes can be removed, so that they may realize the prodigious benefits of independent, local business, and the horrendous assault on the world that is big box retail, that is Wal-Mart, they can make the world a better place, a more sustainable place, where more people have more money, and fewer people at the top have too much money.