Thursday, December 11, 2008


Evil empire or necessary evil?

"When you compete with Wal-Mart, even if you think you've found a niche don't ever become complacent.
Michael Bergdahl

I try to be a good community member. I buy local when I can. I try to keep my money in my own town or state and support local interests. Even if it costs me more. However, I'm finding it harder and harder to support these endeavors. We are in a recession. Prices are rising on everything, and our paychecks can only stretch so far. But like many small towns across America, our city council seems to be doing little to address the changing world around us. Mills continue to close, fishing boats sit and decay in the harbor, and shop windows darken one by one; industries that used to support hundreds are now the struggling business concern of a few. Student numbers are decreasing, houses sit vacant and don't sell, tourism is stagnant.

This leads me to the notorious merchandising giant. In a time when jobs are scarce, money is tight, and employment worry is constant, Walmart shines like a beacon (or the evil eye of Sauron) above our little "ghost-town-in-the-making". It provides jobs for local families when everyone else seems to be handing out pink slips. It provides inexpensive goods to an increasingly frugal public. And it seems to be one of the few businesses in town still raking in the cash.

Yes, it concerns me that their merchandise is quite possibly made by children in underdeveloped countries for pennies a day. Yes, it concerns me that they sell cheap, plastic, Chinese-made crap that may contain materials unsafe for human use. Yes, it bothers me greatly that they won't let their employees form a union or provide them benefits. And yes, I'm willing to admit that I'm part of the problem.

BUT...and it's a big but...I find that my needs sometimes outweigh my wants and that my checkbook has begun to make less than "righteous" decisions for me. Buying local costs a lot. And though my needs are small, so is my balance. Walmart very smartly takes advantage of that.

They also don't seem to have any shortage of job applicants. So, honestly, the people who choose to work there must find something appealing about it. It is so very American to ask for something one has no birth-right to. Why is it that we feel we deserve something "just because"? A company doesn't "owe" me a large paycheck, benefits, and a timeshare in the Bahamas. If I want those things, I get a degree in a field where I know I will find jobs that will fulfill my criteria for building wealth. If I apply at Walmart, my expectations are going to have to be agressively toned down.

It's a time of great worry for many. And I hate to see local businesses priced out of survival. But, to achieve success, one must remain or become competitive. When I can buy a set of measuring spoons for $15 at a local merchant or go to Walmart or the dollar store and get them for 50 cents, I'm going to take the low road. It might make me a weak person, but it also gives me $14.50 to buy a new book for my son or pay a bill. It's about priorities, and survival is my first one. If I have to stoop to the level of shopping at "discount hell", so be it.

It's easy to say, "I won't support such deliberately immoral business practices." It's easy to say, "I can do without." And for the most part, I don't NEED what Walmart has to sell. But, I teach a lot of kids from a lot of families who have parents in great need of the jobs they provide and the products that they offer. And there is something to be said about cheap products. They may be less than quality. In some instances, they may even be dangerous. And yes, the company probably should be better than that. But if people are willing to buy it, who is really responsible for their success? The only reason Walmart is as successful as it is rests with the consumer. People get what they want, and the corporation prospers. Local business is not suffering because Walmart stepped in. Local business is suffering because it isn't competitive and people are either able to support them but have chosen to do otherwise, or they are not able to support them because they are struggling themselves. Local business needs to stop blaming chain discount stores, as do community members. If we don't want them to survive, we need to stop buying their products and stop working there.

What is more telling than anything is that these chain stores are thriving, even in the face of a recession. This is evidence of something big. We are hurting. So much so that we will buy what we need to buy from a place we do not want to buy from because we cannot afford to do otherwise. Or, we just plain aren't stupid enough to pay $15 for something we could get for 50 cents. It isn't rocket science or economic strategy. It's common sense.

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