By 2004, Wal-Mart plans to open a new store every business day...
June 21, 2001 8:02 PM   Subscribe

By 2004, Wal-Mart plans to open a new store every business day... Call me an out-of-touch lefty, but this PBS documentary bummed the hell out of me. Small town + giant corporation + old-guard legislators = steamroller
posted by GriffX (36 comments total)
I can't STAND Wal-Mart (Target is much, much better, and at least they give 5% of pretax profits to local charities) but every time I think of my hometown's downtown, and all the Charming Businesses that were lost when the malls opened, I have to remember the names of those stores:


And each of those stores ran out a local business in the 40s and 50s, no doubt. But at least they didn't nuke the city's core.

On the other hand, who am I to tell people to forgo cheaper merch & better selection so Pop Warner's Clotherium can stay in business?
posted by lileks at 8:12 PM on June 21, 2001

Furthermore, who needs Wal-Mart when the riches of the Targee' await us all?
posted by solistrato at 9:11 PM on June 21, 2001

Arlington, Cooleyville, Fort Worth, Kennedale, Murphy and Richardson, Texas were among the list of communities who just said no to progress. Didn't make a difference. Living in Dallas Texas, I can attest to that. Most of those towns now have a large 'hyperstore' of some sort within driving distance of their city limits if not in the city itself. Those who appreciate the serenity of small towns and want to slow or stop industrial and commercial progress may have successfully fought one battle, but they're not going to win the war. Corporate expansion into Anytown USA is rewriting what it means to live in America. Small towns will either stop being small, or stop being towns. Fighting the invasion of big cities to rural areas is just postponing the inevitable. I don't personally like it, but that doesn't change the facts.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:41 PM on June 21, 2001

A story on Alternet: "Wal-Mart operates on a saturation strategy. They place stores so close together that they become their own competition. Once everyone else is wiped out, they're free to thin out their own stores. Wal-Mart currently has over 390 empty stores on the market today. This is a company that changes stores as casually as you or I change shoes."
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:50 PM on June 21, 2001

I can shop at my local Wal Mart at 3 in the morning, buy an ungodly amount of crap for nothing, get totally messed up on Dr. Thunder (their Mountain Dew ripoff at 33 cents a 2litter bottle).
I don't miss whatever hick nonsense was here before the Super Center, I can't remember what it was, and I don't care. Thank god for Wal Mart, and the ridiculously cheap creature comforts it affords me. The people have spoken. They want cheap crap. For once, the masses speak for me.
Viva La Crap!
posted by dong_resin at 9:55 PM on June 21, 2001

Fighting the invasion of big cities to rural areas is just postponing the inevitable. I don't personally like it, but that doesn't change the facts.

Do you really think that Wal-Marts and Targets are an invention or innovation of ''big cities"? I live in a big city, and for the most part, if I want to NOT shop at an independently owned store I have to go to the burbs.

As many SUV posts as I see on MeFi (all of which I agree with), I'm surprised we don't talk about the ridiculous suburban commuter mentality more. I see it a lot (okay, constantly) here in DC - people I work with are thrilled to be affluent enough to be able to afford to commute from their little Stepford Mewes communities in Fairfax or wherever to the District and then back again every day - at least an hour's drive each way. Wal-Mart, Target, Starbucks, TGIFridays, Borders, Chili's... who says our choices are being homogenized? Only three or four of those are owned by the same parent company, right?

Can't imagine why people bash the suburbs. Everything there is so clean... spotless... White...
posted by GriffX at 10:16 PM on June 21, 2001

Regardless of your feelings about Wal-Mart's corporate ethics, there is no escaping the fact that, in the end, the only way a Wal-Mart can wipe out small town businesses is if the residents of that town make the conscious decision to stop shopping in those small stores and go to Wal-Mart instead. They have nobody to blame but themselves.
posted by aaron at 10:22 PM on June 21, 2001

I lived in DC for four years. My favorite piece of local color was the Human Urine Fountain on Adams Mill Road - he was usually so hammered by 11 AM that he could not rouse himself to use the alley, and would just let loose with an arc of golden goodness, right there on the steps. It caught the light nicely.

It didn't make me want to move to the suburbs, just to a cleaner city.

I should mention that my innercity DC neighborhood had many small businesses, but most people shopped at: Safeway, People's, Erols, McDonald's, Popeye's, and a national cheap-shoe franchise.

For Borders and Starbucks we had to walk ten blocks south.
posted by lileks at 10:26 PM on June 21, 2001

i am aware that because i have access to entertainment facilities in the middle of the night, i don't appreciate walmart the way a lot of people can. the united states averaegs ~30 people/sq. km, that's reflected in the shopping area of walmart. what america has is land; if one entire midwestern state should turn into one big walmart, there wouldn't be any protest. in fact, if they opened one the size of kansas every day of the year, people would still go, or live inside, whatever. it's just exercise, shopping i mean. this explains the failure of online shopping; shopping is a chance to get out of the house, albeit to butt ugly warehouses of below par everything. how much soap and plastic goods can you buy?

btw, i've never been inside a walmart so i really have no business commenting here... i want the 'rolling back our sleeves' commercial back though, that music.... so ethnic.
posted by elle at 10:41 PM on June 21, 2001

Okay GriffX. Ya got me. Hyperstores are more a concept of suburban sprawl - benefitting from bedroom communities and commuting lifestyles. Small independently owned stores are successful in areas where people don't commute. That's either distant rural communities or populations of people who work within walking distance or a bikeride of their domicile.

I'm talking from my perspective. I've spent the majority of my life in Texas, which compared to a "real city" is the sticks. My neighborhood is far from clean, spotless, or White. I'm in the minority here, and that's exactly how I like it. What I'd consider to be a big city, you'd equate with suburban mentality. Except for the immediate downtown area where there's loft apartments, intimate store front bar&grills, independently owned delicatessans and pharmacies, even where I live only moments away from all that, it's a suburb. I got a Wendy's across the highway. Three Blockbuster's within a five minute drive of each other (again, saturation strategy that's killed all smaller video stores). A Target just a bit south and a WalMart a tweny minute drive north.

I'm sure Manhattan island is built differently due to sheer geography. But the mentality of the Dallas Fort Worth area is also one of "metroplex." There was a time when people started calling it "DALWORTH" thinking of the whole place as one big city. Of course, the City Councils of Dallas and Fort Worth can't see eye to eye on what state they're located in, so they've managed to keep the inevitable from happening.

What's my point? Well, D/FW is turning into what most of America has or will soon become, a sick conglomeration of rural, suburban and downtown. It's already difficult to tell the difference. In less than a generation, the differences will be purely historically academic. Much of the U.S. will simply look like Coruscant anyway.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:43 PM on June 21, 2001

The triumph of the warehouse stores? Their realisation that in the shift of the commercial district from downtown to the periphery, it's almost impossible to comparison-shop, even in the malls.

If I want to buy shoes in my home town in England, I take the bus into the town centre, stroll round the dozen or so shoe shops, and then go back to the one with the best selection. If I wanted to do it in Atlanta, it was a ten-minute drive between malls; in Hartford, a half-hour buzz along the interstate between the two big shopping villages at either end of town. (And I don't drive.) The promise of greater choice and convenience actually delivers less of both: people settle for "oh well, these will do" because the ability to compress the experience of shopping into a one-store hour is more important than the chance to get what you want.

The bizarre thing being that the Wal-Martification of shopping is a major reason why people want to spend as little time as possible ploughing the aisles. Whereas there's actually a real pleasure when you find something different: why else do the markets of London, or of French cities, find their way into the guidebooks. A luxury, certainly, especially to those who have to cope with small children, but not something to give up gladly.

So of course, it's initially a matter of personal choice. But it's also an unconscious choice to reduce choice: a glorious monoculture of commercial leylandii.
posted by holgate at 3:43 AM on June 22, 2001

i hate walmart's commercials. with all the creepy "cute" old couples. and the guy who says "hugs are the best!". creepy. brrrr.

you think i'm kidding.
posted by moz at 7:09 AM on June 22, 2001

I lived in small-town Georgia for three years, Carrollton, something like 17,000 people. The mom-and-pop hardware store usually didn’t have what I needed (they’d order it, sure, but what if I needed it today?), and it closed at 5 on weekdays, noon on Saturday, and wasn’t open at all on Sunday. There were a few boutiquey baby stores, a couple of cheap-ass clothing stores, a Christian book store, a used sporting goods store, a damned expensive menswear shop, but that was about it. WalMart was the ONLY place to go for lots of stuff at lots of hours. You need some garden mulch on Sunday, what do you do? Wait until the hardware store deigns to open on Monday? Drive to the Home Depot 30 miles away? You need a crib for your new baby. What do you do? Buy it at Belk’s, another, though smaller and more expensive, chain? Christmas toys? An iron? WalMart was the only place to go.

I live in DC now, Capitol Hill. I walk to local places for nearly everything, and I pay a premium for it. I make enough money to be able to afford it. But if I had to (god forbid) live in Carrollton again, I’d be hitting the WalMart.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:14 AM on June 22, 2001

Something that lileks has spent a lot of time chronicling on his site: the way in which the growth of the modern city (ie from around 1700) has been tied to commercial architecture. Look at the great Yorkshire towns of the Industrial Revolution, for instance, and the things that define the heart of the place are often not the town hall, or the big church, but the royal exchange and the market square. My own town, with less than 150 years' history, was triangulated by its banks, cinemas and department stores: neo-Gothic and Edwardian, built in a manner that conveyed a sense of confidence that the business would still be running a century later.

Certainly, the demographics have changed sufficiently to make the notion of downtown something of a historical appendix. But it's deeply depressing when a warehouse store is clapped together on the ring-road like a piece of self-assembly furniture. It suggests a kind of fly-by-night attitude to your location: the implication that the pre-fabricated walls can be packed up as quickly as they were erected.
posted by holgate at 7:41 AM on June 22, 2001

Anyone who is suddenly upset with the saturation strategy of Walmart hasn't been paying attention to the saturation strategy of 7-Eleven... at least here in the greater DC sprawl, there's about one 7-Eleven per mile.
posted by crunchland at 7:54 AM on June 22, 2001

Ok. You're an out-of-touch lefty!

Are you happy now?
posted by revbrian at 8:48 AM on June 22, 2001

I've mentioned it before: Joel Garreau's Edge City: Life on the New Frontier is well worth reading if you're interested in better understanding how cities are developing these days. There's much to disagree with in this book, but it's thought-provoking nonetheless.
posted by kindall at 8:52 AM on June 22, 2001

Commerce is forever changing. People will get sick of the big box stores, and they will be hulking relics, shopping ozymandius's full of ultra-cut-rate crap that hardly anyone wants, and then they will be torn down.

however it's fairly likely that mom and pop are not coming back-- except as franchised versions owned by megacorps
posted by FPN at 9:25 AM on June 22, 2001

Someone should do Avanova-style avatar-thingies called MOM™ and POP™ and then do a cyber-retro-kitsch store called MOM AND POP'S™ like those Cheers™ bars you see at airports.
posted by rodii at 10:43 AM on June 22, 2001

This is no surprise. We already have a strip mall wasteland here, just like every other city in the South. Wal-Mart wanted to build another store here in a neighborhood where no locals wanted it. "Fuck you!" said the city council, "We're going to build it anyway, we don't care what you think. Plus, we can stuff tons of corporate money in our pockets at the same time!". So the locals sued the city. Guess what? They lost. It's pathetic that people will drive a half hour across town and get crappy customer service, all to save a couple of cents on a tube of toothpaste. Pathetic.
posted by dr. zoidberg at 12:43 PM on June 22, 2001

It's pathetic that people will drive a half hour across town and get crappy customer service, all to save a couple of cents on a tube of toothpaste.

How much "customer service" do people require when buying a tube of toothpaste, anyway?
posted by kindall at 1:49 PM on June 22, 2001

What exactly is the point of having lots of smaller stores? All I see here is people saying that's how it used to be, therefore it is good, the same logic used to argue the superiority of yesterday's pop music against today's pop music, when it's really the same mix of shit. I'm not real big on Wal-Mart only because we have Meijer. Everything Wal Mart has, plus all your groceries, everything, open 24 hours a day every day (except Christmas). And I can go through the u-scan line and I don't have to interact with a single other person. It's great. And it's cheap. And everything's there.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:42 PM on June 22, 2001

Part of the point, dagny, is that people who own their own businesses are more apt to take part in a community, to "give something back," as the cliche goes (more often than not true). Wal-Mart gives back very little. I'm not totally anti Wal-Mart by any means. But it does hack me off when they, say, try to put all the florists and optometrists and 1-hour photo places out of business. It's just plain ol' a-hole behavior. Why? Wal-Mart gets advantages the others don't through volume buying and direct deals with wholesalers, etc., that the others don't. That's way unfair as far as specific niche businesses go (How long do optometrists spend in school? How long do florists have to apprentice, etc.? What other options does Mr. 1-Hour Photo have?). They also don't play nice as far as small-town politics go -- and politics does filter into it, bigtime, through zoning, zoning tricks (buy an option on land, have the owner ask for a zoning change while no one's paying attention), demands to play by different rules than everyone else, asking for road construction at a moment's notice, service discounts, etc., etc.

Also please realize you're not talking metro areas here. You're talking small towns.
posted by raysmj at 5:14 PM on June 22, 2001

And I can go through the u-scan line and I don't have to interact with a single other person. It's great.

Yes, bliss. Meijer is the only thing I miss about living in Michigan. The closest thing we have here in Seattle, Fred Meyer, is only open until 11PM -- the wusses. Many of them now have U-Scan, though.
posted by kindall at 6:00 PM on June 22, 2001

This is one reason I'm a fan of "big gubmint" in the UK. Small towns in the US have a greater say in whether a big store gets built within their boundaries, which allows the big-box retailers to court local councils: after all, only one will get the land revenues, so you might as well agree to the Wal-Mart to stop them going 10 miles up the road, from where they'll still affect the stores on Main Street. Whereas John Prescott (and his Tory predecessor) made it much harder for an individual council to give permission for out-of-town developments, particularly in rural areas.

The difference is palpable. Amsterdam, for instance, has very few big chain stores, but lots of choice among the small-scale vendors, and glorious markets. The same in Manhattan (though the rise of Starbucks and B&N is obvious). I go to Durham, and the indoor market has locally-produced meat and cheese and bread and vegetables, the likes of which never make it to Safeway and Sainsbury because they're not produced in the scale required for supermarket purchasers. A case in point: when I lived in Oxford, one of the joys of living near the covered market was being able to buy fruit and vegetables in season: asparagus in late May from Kent; cherries from France and Spain in June; cobnuts in October. You simply can't get them in the big grocery stores, and the difference between asparagus from Kent and the stuff flown in from Peru and Thailand... well, you might as well not bother. Same applied when I was in Georgia with the young lady-friend, buying peaches and Vidalia onions from the farm-stalls along the roadside.

And I can go through the u-scan line and I don't have to interact with a single other person.

Ah, see, that's the thing: the interacting. (Where else does the word "commerce" come from? And I don't mean definition number three.) I can spend ten minutes chatting to the person who runs the cheese shop (I know, it's a bit Monty Python) trying pieces of the new stock, asking about why it's so hard to get unpasteurised Cotherstone these days, or just generally talking about the weather. I know I tend to idealise this, but I actually enjoy that kind of shopping, rather than standing in the queue at Tesco's entertaining thoughts of ennui and mass murder.

I'd be quite happy if I could order generic essentials online and get them delivered in a box (or pick them up from a depot) every fortnight or so: toothpaste, bog-roll, washing powder. But when it comes to the things where quality makes a real difference -- for me, the choice of food -- I dread the day when it's all waxed apples flown in from South America.
posted by holgate at 6:17 PM on June 22, 2001

There are NO Wal Marts in the New York City area, just one Sam's Club in suburban Elmsford. The nearest store is in Fishkill, NY 50 miles north of the city. The reason you can't find a Wal Mart is because of the strength of retail unions. They would be forced to pay workers a decent wage.

My brother works in retail construction. He heard about a Wal Mart store that was organized by a trade union. They shut it down, saying that it was unprofitable. The money you spend at Wal Mart will not go to the community, or the people who serve you, it will go here.
posted by NJguy at 1:21 PM on June 23, 2001

They would be forced to pay workers a decent wage.

Cashiers at our local Wal-Mart are making $7/hr. How much more of a decent wage do you want for clean unskilled labour? There are people cleaning filthy public toilets for less than that.
posted by Dreama at 1:28 PM on June 23, 2001

That seems to be part of the problem, Dreama. Wal-Marts drive the smaller, specialty stores out of business, and with it, the higher paying, specialized jobs. Someone who knows how to fit shoes, or clothes, actually has a skill. At Wal-Mart, where you help yourself to whatever you need, those skills aren't valued. Wal-Mart doesn't pay for expertise because it doesn't require it from its employees. But what happens to the people in the community when they can no longer find employment because Wal-Mart is the only store in town?
posted by megnut at 2:49 PM on June 24, 2001

One other thing to remember about the dark side of Wal-mart... once they become the only store in town, they can dictate what patrons can and cannot buy.
posted by crunchland at 2:55 PM on June 24, 2001

That's really quite disgraceful. Though I'd be interested to know precisely how many people are affected by this: that is, the number of people for whom the nearest non-Wal-Mart pharmacy is more than, say, 10 miles away?
posted by holgate at 3:25 PM on June 24, 2001

Someone who knows how to fit shoes, or clothes, actually has a skill.

I'd argue that someone with a completely useless skill might as well not have a skill at all. If the ability to fit shoes were an arcane craft acquired through years of experience, to the extent that you just couldn't get a pair of shoes that fit right without going to someone who could do it, consumers would still buy their shoes from such people. Unfortunately for these "skilled" workers, once you've tried on some shoes for yourself, you realize it's not rocket science to figure out whether they fit you right or not, and there's no point in paying someone extra to tell you something you can figure out for yourself in a few seconds.

People with useless skills are bound to find themselves unemployed eventually. They can, I'm sure, still find employment -- at a wage that reflects their actual skill level. There were "shoe warehouses" long before WalMart.

once they become the only store in town, they can dictate what patrons can and cannot buy

One might argue that the kinds of places where WalMart could possibly become the only store in town -- places like Searcy, Arkansas, where my sister went to college -- are not typically the kinds of places where most pharmacies would stock emergency contraceptives anyway.
posted by kindall at 3:46 PM on June 24, 2001

You can obviously side me onto the side you thought I'd be on if you saw who wrote this before you read it.

Therefore, let me wind up this fine Sunday evening with me expressing that Wal Mart's behavior is really, really scary. Which isn't to say that 7-11 or any other company who's mission statement is "FUCKING SATURATE 'EM ALL!" isn't equally as bad. So to all you who would traditionally jump all over me for having such audacious leanings, let me say:

Good for you (You know who you are) that's where you live. If you can take the monotonous intersection after intersection of quadrangled strip malls, the winding roaded, idyllic suburban "power centers" with the glistening of sun on tinted car windows and the cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of shuttered garage doors and nylon "how does your garden grow?" multi colored nylon flags, then more power to you. Also don't blame anyone but yourselves when the economy cools and increasingly the once bustling, low-rider bass fest venues are massive, ugly rectangular hulks surrounded by prairies of weeds creeping through cracked asphalt. And when you ask why doesn't anyone have any pride for America, my own "hometown USA"? You're forced to blame the wholesale purchasing without conscience, as you gave nary a thought where your money was going when you found those great prices on Thunder Sugar Drink that Harry's grocery (who lived upstairs from the shop) was selling the Mountain Dew for $4.50 a twelve.

Think of your tourist destinations (perhaps save Vegas or Disneyworld), especially your foreign destinations: Remember all the neat little shops, the picturesque cobblestone alleys, the farmers selling their own crops? Wasn't that cute? Wasn't it invigorating to feel so rustic yet cosmopolitan? Wasn't it something you wished there were more of back home?

That is why there are people who are appalled by the homogenizing forces of the Corporate Year 2001.
posted by crasspastor at 11:54 PM on June 24, 2001

But what happens to the people in the community when they can no longer find employment because Wal-Mart is the only store in town?

They learn a new skill, they find something new, or they get swept under the tide. It's what happens. Businesses close, change focus, streamline, increase efficiency. They get overwhelmed by their competition. People learn to cope.

I'm slightly more attuned to the plight of people when an entire region is based on a single industry which is suddenly taken away than with shoe fitters who lose their jobs because WalMart comes to town. Come to Pittsburgh and I'll take you to the "Steel" valley, and we can talk about the "what happens when someone can no longer find employment" question on a meaningful scale. 20 years after the mills shut down and these communities are still depressed and hollow. Now that's an American tragedy.
posted by Dreama at 9:18 AM on June 25, 2001

Yeah, her tragedy can beat up your tragedy.
posted by rodii at 10:42 AM on June 25, 2001

Dreama: I'm slightly more attuned to the plight of people when an entire region...

While not entirely pooh-poohing your argument, Wal-Mart is going for a much larger region: the whole country.

Wal-Mart wants to be the über-retailer for America. Fine. They're the 2nd biggest employer in America. Also fine. Let's say Wal-Mart gets to the point of a McDonald's, and you have one every couple of miles. People depend on Wal-Mart for everything from goods and services to jobs and civic improvements (think Store Wars).

With that in mind, Wal-Mart will have the opportunity to dictate the economic and societal growth of an impressive number of people. If they shut down the local businesses as they tend to do, people will end up working at Wal-Mart. There, they will be given poor hours and even crappier benefits, if they can afford them. Because there is no alternative, the standards are lowered. Specialized skills go unused. People will work at Wal-Mart making $7/hour, and wonder why they can't afford these goofy rents and food bills that people making a living wage can afford.

So why don't they just go elsewhere? Learn a new skill? That takes education. Education takes money. Find something new? Okay, the 7-Eleven is hiring, as is McDonald's. If you're lucky, you can find a store that relates to your interes... er, sorry, that store closed down due to Wal-Mart's competition.

You're right on one thing, though. Businesses don't have to care about people; they have to "increase efficiency". I think Wal-Mart's 50% churn rate (every year!) proves that.
posted by hijinx at 10:57 AM on June 25, 2001

One note, to NJGuy and others: Wal-Mart hates locating in cities because of the land values and, thus, hig rents. Trade unions come into play sometimes, but the only real thing that would stop Wal-Mart from going anywhere would be the bottom line.
posted by MarkO at 9:00 AM on June 26, 2001

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