Will new Wal-Mart be a plus for Sweet Home?
July 20, 2005
Picture this. Your kid comes into the house, complaining that his bike tire has a big hole in it.
You decide the solution is to buy a new tire, so you drive down to the local hardware store. But when you drive up, the store is closed. It?s a Saturday! What?s going on? You peek in the window. The shelves look empty. Strange.
You decide you?re going to have to travel to Lebanon to buy a new tire. As long as you?re going to make that 30-mile round trip, you might as well call your wife and pick up whatever groceries she needs. After all, with only one supermarket left in Sweet Home, you might be able to get some better prices down the road.
Nearing Lebanon, you notice you?re getting low on gas. You drive on into town to get some and you notice that a few more stores along Highway 20 are shuttered. Too bad about Bi-Mart and Roths. Had to close a few months ago. So did two tire stores. So did the lube place and the nursery.
You fill up and head for the Wal-Mart Superstore. They?ve been there for a couple of years now and they should have everything you?re going to want today. You can get your groceries and you can get that bike tire, though it seemed like the prices for those tires are a little high. The clerk, when you finally find one, doen't seem to know to much about bike tires and how long these are likely to last.
Hmm. Oh well, it?s probably not worth it to drive all the way to Albany to bargain shop. Might as well pay up and head back to Sweet Home.
Do you like that scenario?
I don?t. I love low prices and I like selection, but the thought of seeing community-oriented businesses driven out of existence by a giant corporation that cares for its customers and their communities only as much as it takes to get our money is not soothing.
I?ll freely acknowledge that Wal-Mart, which opened its new Superstore in Lebanon at 8 a.m. on July 20, has some apparent positives.
? It calls itself the ?Low Price Leader? and it does often offer lower prices than competitors because, as a mega-corporation, it can buy goods in huge volume at prices lower than smaller stores can. You can indeed often buy things a few cents cheaper at Wal-Mart, as long as there are other businesses around to offer their own prices.
? Wal-Mart ? especially Super Wal-Mart ? offers great selection. One of the reasons it attracts shoppers is that it offers lots of stuff at relatively low prices. Course, most of it is made in other countires and the quality is often suspect. But it?s a winning combination and that?s why Wal-Mart is Number One in the retail industry.
? Wal-Mart provides jobs, though that may not be quite the plus it appears to be. Problem is, a lot of those jobs are less than full-time, pay less than employees could make at competing businesses (if any are left), and offer few benefits. Studies in other communities have shown that in some cases Wal-Mart has added few, if any, jobs because other businesses had to lay off employees to compete. So if other stores and locally owned businesses in Lebanon and Sweet Home bite the dust because Wal-Mart?s undercutting them, the employment benefits brought by Wal-Mart may amount to little or nil.
? Wal-Mart has been credited for holding the line on inflation in the United States in recent years, by refusing to pay higher prices to its suppliers.
But is that really a good thing? If a manufacturer is paying a dollar more for fuel today than it was a year or two ago, yet can?t raise prices because its biggest customer, Wal-Mart, won?t let it ? well, you do the math. And if Wal-Mart insists on paying a manufacturer less for an item than it did the previous year, which is not uncommon, the manufacturer has to find a way to cut costs ? often by cutting jobs.
What I don?t like is what Wal-Mart often does to communities and what I fear Super Wal-Mart may do to Lebanon and Sweet Home. There?s one major thing lacking at Wal-Mart ? and many other big-box stores. They?re all about capitalism and they?re not very much about community.
I like capitalism. I love bargains. The competition aspect of merchandising better than somebody else is a fine ethic. But when responsibility as a member of the community gets lost in that competition, capitalism can develop an ugly side.
These stores are owned by people who live far away from us ? with the exception of Bi-Mart, which is owned by its employees, Fred Meyer and Costco, most big-box-type stores are not owned or run by people who live anywhere near us in the Northwest. So when you spend a large portion of your monthly paycheck at these stores, it?s going straight to other local economies, not ours.
Some argue that Wal-Mart, in particular, is dangerous to America?s economy, not just local ones. It destroys competition (and jobs), thus destroying the economies of communities that have lost those jobs and businesses. And by reducing the wages and buying power of workers, Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers can force down the standard of living within the communities in which they operate.
Insistent pressure from Wal-Mart and other big-box stores on manufacturers to keep prices low has forced much of the manufacturing that took place in America overseas.
An extensive Los Angeles Times series on Wal-Mart, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, quoted estimates by consulting firm Retail Forward that 50 to 60 percent of all the merchandise in Wal-Mart?s U.S. stores is imported. In 1995, imports in Wal-Mart stores accounted for only 6 percent of its goods.
Super Wal-Mart exists in Lebanon, but most of what you?re paying is flowing back to Arkansas. And although its mostly low-paid employees live here, the corporation really has little motivation to be a part of the community any more than necessary to make you feel good about shopping there.
Think about it. Do you want to save a few pennies today and pay more tomorrow? That?s what may likely happen if Lebanon?s Super Wal-Mart does to the business community what other Wal-Marts have done in other small, rural communities across the country. Hop on Google and run the word "Wal-Mart" with such words as "Iowa" or "predatory business" or "inflation" for a taste of what people are accusing Wal-Mart of doing in other parts of the nation.
Sure. Wal-Mart offers cheap stuff and lots of it. Even I know that and even I occasionally have to shop there because, frankly, there may not be an alternative nearby for certain items.
But when we decide where we're going to shop, we need to determine whether service and community and other things provided by locally owned stores, which are the ones who get undercut by Wal-Mart's pricing, offer any extra value over a store that may have everything but is usually a bit short of clerks who don't know much about the merchandise anyway.
And when that bike tire, likely made by people making 20 cents an hour in some third-world country, starts cracking and blows out in a year or two, you may have to go back to Super Wal-Mart and buy another one.