November 13, 2005

Walmart -- devil's advocation vs blind optimism

My positionally waffling comment on Briana's Walmart post was so long I decided to post it here, too.

Background: Briana, as always, spots the best blog stuff. She got this via Susie Bright: Walmart has fired an employee named Kirby for his reply to a right-wing Christian woman's complaint over the company's change from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays".

Kirby took the time to write this Bible-thumper a response that explained, rightly, how the Christian holiday was originally a mishmash of other faiths' traditions:

"The colors associated with Christmas red-and-white are actually a representation of the amanita muscaria mushroom," he wrote her. "Santa is borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide, wide world."

There are some interesting comments on both Susie's and Briana's blogsites. Most of them label Walmart as pure evil; I share the sentiment, but have a few bits of 'for the sake of argument' opinion to share, too.

First, my court-mandated Devil’s Advocate work. Walmart makes a big effort to employ those who can’t gete decent work elsewhere: mentally and physically challenged, seniors, teens. Also, from what I understand, their starting wages are higher than, say, Subway or McDonald’s (which, to be fair, also offers some people half-decent career opportunities, should they stay on past the typical high school years-tour). There's a young gentleman I've worked with at Douglas College who is, for lack of nicer terms, a little bit slow. He's nice enough, but due to a congenital condition, his social skills are left a little bit wanting, and his appearance is best described as "a defeated sigh, personified". This young man was slowly cycling deeper and deeper into a clinical depression until he got a job at Walmart -- for the first time in his life, he was given responsibility, a chance to challenge himself, and the structure within which he could achieve some career aspirations. Walmart, to risk trite exaggeration, probably saved his life.

As for big box stores taking away from community, I wholeheartedly agree — they’re a special sickness that people in future classes will scoff at when they study our times. However, I feel the same way about shopping malls, and those proliferate like cockroaches throughout the downtown area. When I walk through a shopping mall, I get jittery fluorescent lighting, ceaseless marketing stimuli, and the same stores selling the same stuff regardless of which mall I visit.

Here lies the great hypocrisy of the “upward-thinking” academics who eschew Walmart. They scoff at fast-food franchises and turn their nose from Walmart or Zellers. On the other hand, they make regular trips to Pacific Centre or one of its sister facilities. Why not boycott shopping malls, strip malls, and while we're at it, the upscale chain restaurants, too?

I honestly feel that the biggest crime these big companies commit — usually American, although working for a Korean-owned company I see it’s not limited to the Yanks — is that they have a complete lack of human compassion involved in their treatment of employees, the community and, I know it sounds strange, the competition.

Sure, I talked about the less-fortunate getting jobs; however, it seems this is a business ploy rather than a genuine attempt to help the community. Think about it -- who would appreciate a repetitive job for years at a time (thus reducing training budgets) at a relatively low long-term wage more than mentally challenged people? Just going from studies here, seniors are often just happy to have a job that gets them out of the house and in contact with others. Employers who hire people from marginalised groups get government handouts to do so -- not to mention the tax benefits of being involved in these communities.

Back to the inspiration for all of this discussion: This person who wrote about Christmas got fired, not for speaking the truth, but for not towing the company line. However, what this person actually did was use their studies to justify a marketing call. From what I can see, the response wasn’t rude or condescending, so much as educated and explanatory. Walmart let the employee go for being well-versed enough to explain their corporate strategy in a way that wasn’t dumbed down — Walmart’s reason is just, “to bring all cultures into the store.” This guy was actually trying to share something Walmart doesn’t want employees, and most important, customers, to have: knowledge.

Customers seem to get a good deal, at first. As one person has suggested, Walmart offers quality brand names at discounted prices. They offer free RV parking, discounted pharmaceuticals to seniors, even some regionally made goods to a wider audience. Until, that is, the competition shuts down.

The pattern is well-documented: a Walmart builds in a location (most often a smaller community) amid local furore and dispute. A short period of boycott is ended when shoppers discover the deeply slashed prices and “special treatment”. Local stores are driven out of business by Walmart’s sheer volume and deep pockets. (The big box store, in fact, utilises many loss leaders — that is, products sold below the store’s cost — to bring customers through the door; small shops just can’t compete.) Once all comers have been dispatched, Walmart starts to increase their prices and decrease their special services. With no other stores in operation, and none likely to risk head-to-head competition in the future, Walmart is now free to do what they will with their now-captive consumer base.

The consumers, of course, have no recourse. They’ve dug their own grave: they’ve ruined their own local economy and lost the option of competitive pricing by turning away their loyalty from the old, smaller shops; they’ve essentially aided the corporate giant in establishing a monopoly, and now must pay for it, literally, through higher prices and limited choices.

(For those of you who don't feel like doing the reading or social activism necessary to get more information, there's now a convenient, left-wing movie you can watch! Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices is available on DVD for $13 US, or, hilariously, you can attend a screening hosted by the same COPE-majority Vancouver city council, for the low price of $20 Cdn!!!)

As for East Vancouver, I’m of a split mind on this one: while city council delivered a blow to Walmart (which companies like this need once in a while, methinks), they did so at the cost of the giant’s concessions. The new big box would have been the most ecologically-friendly Walmart in the chain, and a blueprint for future, better-designed stores. If only all the shopping malls were green-roofed and charity-supporting, for example. Also, as Briana suggests, East Van could use a few more jobs for locals.

And what many people aren’t asking: if Walmart couldn’t get approval, why is the biggest Costco in Canada being built in Yaletown?

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