November 25, 2002

(why i am) Pro-Choice

[this is another transfer from my old website. as i reread the post i could already hear Darryl's opinions in my ear. i considered pre-empting expected arguments and decided to leave it as is, instead.

this was originally posted fall/winter 2002.]
(why i am)

I've been led to believe that those who support "family values," by definition, support families and the values that help those families to remain close knit and self supporting. That's why I'm so often surprised to find that those "family values" supporters shop at Walmart.
Why do sooooooooo many christians in this nation, who claim to support family values, support giant government bureaucracies or giant unregulated corporations, and the government corporate welfare system (so much for "free-markets"), which undermine the true empowerment of families? The God of Unlimited Profit is very seductive and I believe has infested the gospel of many churches. Christians on the left usually err on the side of Big Government as saviour, and Christians on the right usually err on the side of Big Corporations as saviour. And the gospel is usually lost. -- Brett Lutz
Now, I have to admit that I've shopped at Walmart before, and Home Depot and Target just to name a few. But that doesn't mean that I should have.
Let me explain:
By supporting Walmart (and many other chains), you are essentially encouraging homogeneity. As chains force out the local mom and pop stores and restaurants (and each other... note that Kmart isn't doing too well), we begin to lose the ability to choose where we'd like to shop. Once upon a time we could choose between several mom and pops as well as the chains. The chains, however, will soon reduce our choices only down to other chains (and in some places this has already happened) and eventually the chains will duke it out among themselves until there's only a few remaining to choose from. And what will your choices be then? If you don't like what they stock, then you're just out of luck because there will be no where else to go. (And I haven't found a mega-chain yet that special-orders items for customers.)

Darwin believed that the fittest would survive. However, its easy to be "more fit" when you're unfair. Chains aren't only unfair to the mom and pop shops, but they're increasingly unfair to their consumers, their employees and the communities they're located in. And though Walmart makes an ideal icon to slam, even such well loved favorites as McDonalds are at fault. I doubt that, Sam Walton (Walmart), Ray Kroc (McDonalds), and Sebastian Kresge (Kmart) set out to wipe out choice. In fact, I suspect that they thought they were helping to bring about more choice. And initially, they were. But as these corporations saturate communities, they will eventually (and have already begun to) reduce our choices (for where to shop, what we can buy when we shop, and even for where we work).
Unfair to Consumers
Consumers are loosing their ability to choose. Not only does the increasing presence of chain stores reduce the number of shopping options for the average consumer as all of the mom and pop options are wiped out, but the stores themselves only carry a set offering of products and are generally not able to special order items. (Thank God for the internet!)
"I have personally seen Wal-Mart and other discount stores completely shut down a small town in southern Indiana. Businesses which had been in operation for years were closed and the only opportunities for employment were minimum wage jobs. In addition, clothing and other items are of a low quality, not really quality for price."
--anonymous in the San Diego area (from Lawmall)
The sheer buying power of some of these behemoths can even affect availability of items. If a manufacturer is looking to put a new product on the market, they often need to have that product get picked up by one of the larger chains or they won't be able to sell enough to make a profit. So if Home Depot decides it doesn't like your new gizmo, then its likely that your new gizmo might not hit the market at all (and anyone who would have jumped at the chance to own that new gizmo is just out of luck). Likewise, if a chain store does decide to sell your little gizmo, they may make you sign a contract that forbids you from selling your gizmo to any other company or even directly to consumers. (So now anyone who isn't near a Walmart or Home Depot is the one out of luck.)
Chains also reduce choice by making their product selection, their store layout, etc. all part of their branding. For the most part, when you walk into a new Meijers, or a Super K, or a Walmart, you can size up the layout (groceries on the right or groceries on the left?) and find the department that you want right away because you're already familiar with how that store lays out its products. (Actually, I've noticed that once you've got Meijers down pat, you can figure out Walmart pretty quickly, etc.) This is part of what makes these stores appealing. I know that when I'm traveling, its comforting to walk into a store and be able to find what I want pretty quickly without having to ask. But at the same time, this sameness lacks originality and creativity. I find it ironic that most Americans don't like "religion" because certain things are expected of them, and they'll have to learn the in's and out's of the "religion." Yet the big wigs at these chains have us fully trained to memorize the layout of their stores, to know their product selection, to accept their product selection, to purchase from their product selection, to believe their product selection is what they say it is (see PBS's article on Walmart stocking-or not stocking-American made products), and to sign up for the card that will give us "discounts" on all of these products (while giving away our personal information to those same corporate big wigs).
"My experience with superstores - Home Depot, etc. - is that they have a broad range of products but lack depth. I find myself patronizing the niche retailers - the specialty bookstore, or 'Real Goods' catalog for products I want. My concern with superstores is that they ... define what's marketed without concern for origin of product (e.g. Chinese prison labor) or ecological consequences."
--anonymous in the San Diego area (from Lawmall)
In a similar vein, chains like McDonalds train us to expect hamburgers to taste a certain way (too much sodium, grain fed cows, white bun, grease). No matter what McDonalds you go to all across America, those hamburgers will taste identical. (That is, they will unless one of the employees has "doctored it up" somehow with something disgusting. See Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.) We can't walk into a McDonalds in Colorado and see what a Colorado cow tastes like as opposed to a California cow. (And I'll bet some of you didn't even realize that cows fed on different foods tasted different! Well... they do.)
Ditto the food-tasting-the-same argument with Starbucks, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc. They're selling a brand. Their goal is not to sell the best food in the region that the food is being sold in. Their goal is to make all their food taste the same so that you'll get used to it and want only that and then you're hooked on that branded taste (and the branded means of purchase and the branded special deals, etc.) and you'll buy more and more and make the corporate execs. wealthier and wealthier.
Unfair to Employees
"The lawsuit charges that Wal-Mart, the self-proclaimed fastest growing and largest private employer in the United States, has systematically avoided paying employees their full, earned wages. Wal-Mart provides perverse incentives for managers to lower overhead costs, the largest component of which is employee payroll, by offering financial compensation and bonuses."
-- from the website of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
To be perfectly honest, I've never known any Walmart employees personally. So I don't know from personal experience how they're treated. All I know is what I've heard from friends and what I've read in the paper about the law suits that have been brought against them. (Even the Germans are upset with Walmart's labor practices.) Apparently Walmart's push is so great to lower prices that it is fairly common for employees to be expected to work off the clock and to work overtime at no pay (at least, that's what these lawsuits allege).
Executives seem to do quite well at Walmart with the company having been ranked as one of the top 100 companies to work for. However, for the non-executive types, take home pay is often under $250/week. And while Walmart employees may start out at about the same pay rate as most other retail stores, the pay doesn't increase at the same rate. According to PBS, a majority of Walmart's employees with children live below the poverty line.
Unfair to Communities
No one likes a huge vacant lot with a huge vacant warehouse type building on it. But Walmart's corporate strategy has been to completely saturate an area until they become their own competition. (Have you ever wondered why a Walmart will move in when there's already one or two in town as well as several Target's, Kmarts, etc?) They then become their own competition, effectively pushing out all other competition (bye, bye Kmart!). Then, once the competition has been wiped out, they shut down on of their own stores, leaving a vacant building. (Don't believe me? Check out Walmart's expansion pattern across the US. -- scroll down to the center of the page)
Cities want a "solid tax base" and business properties tend to provide more tax income for the city than residential
"Local officials often fall for the seductions and political appeal of luring new national chains... but fail to consider the greater losses that occur when the local business base is undermined."
-- from the website Reclaim
properties. So rather than having everyone in your little burb travel to the neighboring blurb to shop, you want the mall/Walmart/Home Depot in your own town. (At least, this is the prevailing philosophy.) However, even though you've got that mall, the neighboring community will probably decide to get some tax money for itself and will allow a similar mall to move in. Both can't survive so eventually one goes belly up and now the loser city no longer has that tax income, it also has an eyesore to deal with as well.
The big box stores could care less about what's best for the city or what's best for the citizens. Their goal is profit and they will do whatever it takes to get it. (think Enron, WorldCom, etc.) Small businesses, on the other hand, live and die with the city. If Ann Arbor, MI dies, the small businesses will die with it. Meijers, on the other hand, will just abandon shop there and move on to greener pastures. Big box business may act like it cares for the community, but the health of the community will, in the long run, barely affect it. Therefore, what do they really care?
What Can I Do?
Shop locally. That doesn't mean shop at the Walmart near you. It means shop, as much as you can, at the little, locally owned businesses in your neighborhood. If you don't know which businesses are independently owned, check out your local independent newspaper (the one that you can pick up free at the cafe). Though these newspapers may have some chain sponsorship, they often have even more sponsorship by the local, independent businesses. You can also look in the phone book or online for a local Independent Business Alliance.
There are some times when shopping locally means spending more, but that isn't always the case. Some small stores have better prices for their regular customers. (A corner store in San Francisco charged us $3.50/pint for Ben & Jerry's ice cream. But once the guy got to know us he'd say, "For you -- three dollars." Chain stores just don't work off of relationships that way. Likewise, at another SF video store, I've brought videos back a day late before and because the woman has gotten to know me, she has waved the late fee.)
Farmers markets are an example of local business. And most farmers markets have bargain prices (and incredibly fresh food). Local bakeries may cost more per loaf, but they may also have special deals such as a free loaf after so many purchased, or they'll give you a free slice every time you come in. (OK, OK, so there's a franchise that does this too. But I've got to admit, they're a pretty darn smart little franchise that runs a lot like a little independent store.)
Shop for taste, originality, sustainability as well as for bargain prices. Sure, Walmart may sell something cheaper, but the local independent store may sell something that's fresher, more personalized, or that will last longer. The extra cost may be well worth it. I bought a pint of strawberries at Walmart once (shame on me!) and ended up throwing most of them into the compost pile. They were either unripe or molding (in the same container!). I went back to paying more at the organic store for strawberries that taste like strawberries. The "cheaper" strawberries at Walmart actually cost more because only a few were edible.

Resources (in addition to the ones listed above)
Boulder Independent Business Alliance Boulder's independent businesses have joined forces both to support each other and to keep chain businesses at bay.
PBS - Store Wars: The Story PBSexplores the effect of Walmart upon just one small town. There are also related issues covered here such as sprawl and big business (and lots of links to more resources).
Reclaim Democracy


  1. i've never been inside a wal-mart.

    home dept and target and costco on the other hand... but not often.

  2. I'm going to go all native and go with a "Wal-mart.....?"
    I know vaguely what it is, but, trust me, I'm not going near one anytime soon :D

  3. The world is going to the pit in a woven handbasket and that's just one strand of the weave.

  4. I don't see the problem in the slightest. I have never had a problem finding what I want, and the world is slowly moving to an online market these days anyway. I do most of my shopping at Amazon now where EVERYONE can sell their product. There are big shops and little shops there and to the consumer's eye they all look the same. Although Amazon has only made a small impact so far on the total market, it is ramping up.

    I have lived in this town for 11 years and I have never stepped in Walmart that I can remember. It has nothing to do with anything except I simply don't shop at places like that, I go to the mall or go online.

  5. i've been in my little corner pharmacy and a gal didn't have enough money to cover the stuff she was buying. the store owner knew her and said that she could just make up the difference the next time she's in.

    interactions like this add compassion, kindness, and above all, relationship, to a community. amazon can't do that. wal-mart generally doesn't do that (unless you know the cashier, but even then she can't let you just pay next time.)

    the owners of a local hang-out joint (where i took my kids miniature golfing recently, if you've seen the pics), have given free miniature golf passes to the children at our kids elementary school (where one of their kids also attends) when they receive a good citizens award. a local cafe has done likewise. another local cafe gives out free hot cocoa through a summer library reading program. (and when we go, many of the barista's give out extra whipped cream (the real stuff, btw) to the kids.

    mcdonald's and pizza hut are good about being involved in communities, education, etc. but again, it's much more personal when you're getting these things from locally owned businesses that are able to bend the rules (by giving out extra whipped cream, for example). there's relationship. there's kindness. there's generosity. when you get the free milk shake from mickey d's, it's just like any other milk shake that you could get from any other mickey d's. there's nothing to get besides the milk shake. relationship doesn't fit anywhere into the equation.

    these things are intangibles. they can't necessarily be measured. but they make a difference in terms of quality of life, family values, and even safety.

  6. All the people in shops in our town, including Target, would do what you say walmart (dont know who they are but gather they are a large chain store) doesn't do. I guess that's the difference to living in or next to a small city compared to a large one like you do.

  7. I feel that my quality of life and safety are both much improved when I shop online, and the way things are done on Internet is very much more in line with my values.

    The logical extension of "compassion and kindness" scares me a lot. It's the same phenomenon that allows fast-talking lawyers to acquit the guilty and convict the innocent just based on whom and what people like and don't like. When rules are bent, they tend to get bent both ways. When people bend the rules positively for people they like, they seem to also start feeling that it's OK to slight those they don't like. Sometimes, it's because those they don't like really were unfriendly, but sometimes it's because they have the wrong face or the wrong voice or the wrong clothes or too much or too little make-up or the wrong amount of eye contact. Even if it's all done "right", it's just way too Fe.

  8. Well I have and always will be a Wal-mart customer. Am I a Wal-mart fan? Not really but when I can save money thats where I have to do my shopping. I love the Mom and Pop stores and use them when I can but on most of my stuff, I use Wal-mart. It's called the free enterprise system. I don't believe in unions and try not to shop a Union shop if I can help it. I think people just like to pick on Someone like Wal-mart. That place has saved me thousands of dollars.

  9. I do agree that fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets and also in some vegie shops are tasteless. I refuse to pay high prices for organic food, so have to suffer the tastless ones, but that is my choice. There is a private vegie grower who lives up the road from us. He has just opened up his business to the public and his vegies are all good and locally grown and cheaper than the supermarkets. I will be buying as many from him as I can, just getting the stuff from the supermarket that he doesnt stock. I sure wish I had a green thumb like my father in law had. He grew wonderful vegies when he was still living here..sigh

  10. As Meg's post title goes, "free choice" is certainly a right in this country, and the majority in this country wouldn't want to limit that in anyway.

    That said, I often hear people's rationale for visiting Wal-Mart is (a) the convenience of one-stop shopping, and (b) the every day low price. Looking specifically at the low price of Wal-Mart, last Thanksgiving (or was it the year before last) Wal-Mart decided to go against retail tradition and not offer sensational sales the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday). Wal-Mart figured their prices were already the lowest around compacted with customer loyalty they didn't need to offer any special sales. Their plan backfired and they lost a lot of money that day as consumers shopped competitors sporting the traditional sales. What worried me most about this move on Wal-Mart's part is that while they may have low, low prices now on some items, what is going to happen when they become the sole retailer of specific products in a community? There won't be any incentive then to have low, low prices, in fact Wal-Mart can mask raising the cost across the board by stating they're finally dealing with low employee pay and poor health care coverage. Who'd fault them for that?

    Locally, back in the spring, there were two taxi cab companies. One was much bigger than the other. Around March or so the larger taxi cab company which was charging $5 rates in town to the smaller company's $4, lowered their cost to $3. When my dad asked a driver of the larger taxi cab company the reason for the rate change, the driver frankly said the owner of the larger company wanted to put the smaller company out of business. It worked. Now that we have one taxi cab company, the rate not only went up, but went to $6, a dollar increase. The increase was "justified" by pointing to the cost of fuel.

    So the bottom line is, at what true cost are people shopping at Wal-Mart for the low, low prices?

  11. This is precisely what I've been trying to point out lately to some friends and family lately. The discussion of locally owned and operated businesses has flared up again over here because we just received news that a Starbucks is opening a shop here.

    In our discussions I've challenged people to think about the number of locally owned and operated businesses they frequent. It's pretty difficult for most people to come up with a list of businesses in the community that are locally owned and operated, much less ones they visit.

    I must be making a tiny bit of change, as a recent baby shower was held for us a few weeks ago and the theme was gift cards. Those people that knew me well gave us gift cards to locally owned and operated businesses and/or places that weren't Wal-Mart. Still though, the majority of people were friends of my wife, so our Wal-Mart gift cards outnumbered our other cards in value.

    As I've challenged myself not to visit our local Wal-Mart since it opened it's new store nearly two years ago, I haven't found myself doing without anything at all. When people locally find out that I haven't been they almost always ask me how I'm surviving. Fortunately our little town (pop. 39,000) still has enough alternatives to Wal-Mart (we still have a seemingly, barely surviving K-Mart).

    I actually diverged from another point I was going to make. Long ago when I worked for K-Mart we'd have items such as stone water fountain that was damaged in some way, significantly so. So common sense for me was that if a customer wanted to buy the fountain for a reduced price then why not do it? But management's line was that everything had a price, and unless K-Mart nationally was offering a sale, the price brand new price was in effect. Like you mentioned, at non-chain outfit, you weren't tied to such regulations and red-tape, thus customer service was an added value, that is often missing from the chain stores.

    Solid sentiments Meg.

  12. ah, i really think cafe's are another perfect example of where local can be not only better, but much, much better.

    at starbucks, you know that the coffee is going to taste like the coffee at any other starbucks. but at a local cafe, you can talk to the cafe owner and if you don't like the flavor of the coffee, you can recommend a new brand (hopefully a fair trade brand).

    my favorite cafe, in fact, has had pretty "just OK" coffee since they opened. i didn't really care myself because i prefer tea and their tea selection rocks. but enough people chatted with the owner about it that he now has some new coffee selection (complete with detailed info. about the origins of the coffee) as well as a whole new coffee making process (that keeps the oils in rather than letting them soak into a coffee filter).

    there's another local cafe (the one that may perhaps be doing the best in the city, in fact) that roasts it's own coffee. starbucks roasts their own coffee, but not in the store. so right there you're guaranteed to have older coffee if you go to starbucks as compared to the beanery.

    another thing i like about my favorite local cafe that i've never seen happen in a starbucks -- if you give a $5 deposit, you can take home a ceiling panel and paint it. when you return the panel you get your $5 back. the ceiling of the cafe is beautiful adorned with an incredibly eclectic array of art. (i really should do a photo series on it some time.) and this is in addition to the local art that is rotated through on the walls.

    AND the owner of my favorite little cafe has a kid that goes to the same school my kids go to. they live only 2 blocks from the cafe and have a cute little garden in front of their house. i know them. they know me. and we interact in multiple ways, not just through a business transaction.

  13. But this type of interaction can still happen within most business environments. If you frequented Starbucks, you'd probably get to know some of the employees somewhat.

  14. i don't think so. starbucks is more likely to have higher turn-over rate, even among managers. the owner of the Alley Cat Cafe will most likely stay the owner for a reasonable period of time. (there is a local cafe that recently changed hands. the former owners are friends of ours through the kids school. when they started there were 3 cafes in the downtown area. now there are 16!)

  15. I am so not touching this topic.

  16. I thought about this later, you're right. Had hoped you wouldn't have brought it up.


  17. well, i've got to admit that the Alley Cat has recently lost two of their star baristas. (both moms who were always not only friendly with me but with the kids when i'd bring them in as well.)

    with the beginning of the school year, i've already seen two new people in the past two weeks. but hopefully they'll settle in and stick around for the year.

    so turn-over is a given at a cafe.

    but the nice thing is that the owners remain the same and i have a relationship (of some sort) with them.

    and one time when a barista treated me pretty poorly, i spoke to the owner about it and that was the last time i saw the guy. although i'm sure starbucks would have fired the guy just as quickly as the alley cat did, the difference was that at starbucks i would have had to go out of my way to find a manager (who i probably wouldn't know) and tell them. with the alley cat i could just let the owner know the next time i saw him (which is fairly frequently -- he's very good about checking in at the cafe regularly). and since i already had rapore with the owner, he didn't wait around to see if there were other complaints. he knew i wouldn't have said anything unless it was bad.

  18. I'm glad I came across this (these) posts...I have been aware of the wal-mart "problem" for some time also...but recently, like others, I almost closed my eyes to the truth while listening to the advice of a co-worker about shopping there for a new computer..."you won't find a better price!" said he. I was tempted...but heard myself say to him, "I gotta problem with wal-mart." "What problem" he asked...I thought of most of what was posted above but said..."just don't like wal-mart." Sooooo, I'll be shopping online for my new Dell or dare I say it...Apple?

  19. say it loud, say it proud!

    i switched to apple from ibm back in the late 80s and i've never regretted it. (especially after traveling and using other people's non-apple's. the virus and popup's alone are enough to make me run in fear.)

  20. I'm seriously considering taking a bite...I've never used one though...a co-worker has one and loves it...he had a miserable experience with his PC purchase a year ago and made the switch...

  21. there are still lemon macs out there too. i had one that i had to send in for repairs 3 times. but given that i've had maybe 12 macs in my life, and only one was bad and the rest rocked my socks off, i think that was a huge exception to the rule.

    the thing is, it's really hard to explain to a PC person why it's worth paying more to make the switch. i have a friend that recently bought a laptop and she decided to go with an HP which was only $650. she's already sent it in for repairs once. and now she'll say, "you know that thing that you do ___, how can i do that on my computer?" and i have to point out that she can't, because she doesn't have a mac. it's all stuff that doesn't sound important when you're comparing prices. but when it comes to using the computer, the experience is so much more pleasant, and there's so much stuff built in that's just a basic part of the mac system, that you realize it was well worth the additional money.

    that said, i think there's a bit of a learning curve as well as a major "getting used to things" curve. i've had friends get really upset that they can't do the long convoluted thing they used to do on their pc. it just doesn't work on their new mac. then i come over and click one or two buttons and they're amazed that not only CAN the mac do what they wanted, but it does it so much BETTER that they hadn't even thought to try the easy way because they're so used to the PC way. ;-)


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