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