Friday, October 28, 2005

The Worry of Walmart

I just read a balanced article about Walmart at the Gristmill blog today. Yep, you heard me right: a fair treatment of Walmart from an environmental magazine. I was surprised, too. I've been struggling with my Walmart feelings for a while now. I'm not an extremist who thinks of W as the Evil Empire, marching hand in hand with that other W. Yet I'm not unaware of labor problems, both foreign and domestic, and the impact that this huge company has on the world. I would prefer to spend my money locally, as long as I can get a good value for my dollar. Mostly, I resent other people telling me that as a thinking or caring human, I cannot support Walmart, as my husband's union recently asked us to.

Anyone who visits my neighborhood Walmart would concur with the anti-Walmart hype: completely understaffed or foreign workers, shelves often empty or out of stock, two measly checkout lines open in a strip of 100 registers. If this were the only Walmart I visited, and I had all my city's other stores to compare it to, even I might be out there on the picket line.

When you live in small town, you don't have all those choices to make, a notion that escapes most of the anti-Walmart crowd. It's not as if the locally owned Bi-Rite carries organic vegetables anyway. As a teen I watched my hometown built the first SuperWalmart in the state. I still see many of the friendly faces that worked there at the beginning, employees that bring a level of career professionalism to their positions that our urban, part-time workforce lacks. The Walmart employees I knew moved there from even lower-paying jobs at local shops or long-closed factories. At least some of them were happy to work at a company that OFFERED insurance and even stock options without having to commute an hour into the city.

The Walmart Supercenter broadened our horizons with products we had never seen before: fresh pineapple for under $10, more than one kind of lettuce, and French bread baked hot on the hour. My family was so excited that we would buy a loaf and eat it in the car after school--crumbs everywhere. For once, a low-income family (mine) had an economical choice between wearing someone else's castoff shoes and the $75 loafers from the downtown boutique. I could pick out a pair of glasses that weren't the cheapest old-lady frames at the optometrist's office. I could have my senior portrait from the $5.99 special instead of begging my mom for a school photography package we honestly couldn't afford. That Walmart meant more choices to my family, and I'm sure we weren't alone.

I hope the Gristmill blog is right--that Walmart will step up and make decisions that are better for everyone. Walmart certainly made our little town a better place to shop.

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