by Gene Owens
Down in Alabama, a coed fretted during freshman orientation week at Auburn: Back home, her small downtown was celebrating the grand opening of its first Wal-Mart Super Center, and she was missing out on the excitement.
In a small Carolina foothills town, citizens protested Wal-Mart’s plans to join their community. They feared that it would suck the sap from locally owned businesses.
That’s the Wal-Mart paradox.
Inviting Wal-Mart to town is like transplanting a kudzu vine on the bare ground at the edge of your soybean field. Kudzu may keep the soil from eroding, but it may also smother your soybeans. Wal-Mart may hold prices down, but it may also smother local retailers.
Wal-Mart is a culture unto itself. Someone even coined the term "Wal-Mart Republicans" to describe voters below the country-club stratum who see Wal-Mart as a congenial gathering place and the GOP as the guardian of their conservative values.
Sam Walton, the canny Arkansan who founded the chain in 1962, promised to "lower the cost of living for everyone." He may have succeeded -- but at a price.
Wal-Mart now has 3,000 locations in the United States and 1,000 abroad. It has transformed downtowns, forcing mom-and-pop businesses to fold or seek rare niches where Wal-Mart doesn’t compete. It has nudged competing chains toward bankruptcy. It has forced suppliers to dance to its tune.
It has also given employment to more than 1.2 million people, including those greeters whose job requirements seem to be little more than the ability to smile and say "Welcome to Wal-Mart." The pay isn’t lavish, and critics charge that the chain employs many illegal aliens.
I used to hate Wal-Mart. It was too big and things were too hard to find and I felt much more comfortable buying my computer supplies from Office Depot, my tape recorders from Circuit City and my groceries from Winn-Dixie.
Then I took a bachelor apartment on the fringe of downtown Mobile, Alabama, while Miss Peggy prepared our condo in South Carolina for our retirement. I discovered that the inner-city grocery stores are a different breed from those in the affluent suburbs. When I went to a chain store at 8 a.m. to get some coffee creamer, I found the store closed, its doors and windows barred.
When I shopped inner-city grocers, I found wilted vegetables, overripe fruit and, on one occasion, cranberry juice that was off-color and a little off-flavor.
There was a dinginess about the floors and walls. And one day, as I was shopping with one of the store’s plastic hand baskets, I noted that the inside had a black, dirty coating like the stuff that gets under your fingernails when you work in the yard .
About 15 minutes away was a Wal-Mart, where the floors were immaculate, the fruit and vegetables were fresh, and the cranberry juice had the right color and the right tang, whether you bought Ocean Spray or Sam’s Choice.
I discovered that I could walk a few steps farther and find an inexpensive vacuum cleaner for my small apartment, an electric alarm clock to time my siestas, and other non-grocery essentials.
Kudzu, Inc., seems to be extending its tentacles into every nook and cranny of retailing.
The homeowners’ association in our new neighborhood doesn’t allow yard sales, so when Miss Peggy needed to dispose of surplus items, she turned to Wal-Mart. The local store rents out areas of its vast parking lot for yard-sale booths. Will Wal-Mart soon monopolize the flea-market business?
It already has targeted the Internet, where you can order merchandise, pay for it with your credit card and return it to your nearest Wal-Mart store if you’re not satisfied. Look out, e-Bay.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wal-Mart open an automobile supermarket in its parking lot, offering everything from Kias to Saturns, with maybe a discounted Toyota sold under the Samscar brand. A mobile-home lot offering everything from travel homes to doublewides can’t be far in the future.
Wal-Mart critics fear that Kudzu, Inc., will soon wipe out all meaningful competition, then raise its prices and control the economy.
If it does, I sort of think Uncle Sam will be equal to the challenge. Anybody that could take on Standard Oil and Ma Bell in their primes can probably splinter Wal-Mart into a flock of "Baby Marts," each with its own retail segment.
Meanwhile, Americans have to decide what it’s worth to preserve mom-and-pop enterprises. We’ve put tons of dollars into preserving the family farm and tons more into preserving downtowns that have been rendered obsolete by shopping malls and Interstates.
Should we spend more bucks to save small retail businesses from Wal-Mart?
Meet me in the parking lot and we’ll talk about it.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers last year named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers
and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into
semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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