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Tom Finneran: Why Walmart?

Friday, February 21, 2014

 

Of the many things that make up the wonders of our world, the emotions kicked up by Walmart remain a mystery to me.

Yes, I realize that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer. And yes, I realize that in some things size matters. But the visceral hostility triggered by the mere mention of Walmart is a real puzzle to me. Why the hatred? Why the vituperative political whipping?

Some observations might be in order:

1) American shoppers are free to patronize whomever they choose;

2) American shoppers like choice and value;

3) At least in theory and rhetoric, Americans like competition;

4) In further theory and rhetoric, Americans dislike political and governmental bullying;

5) American families like job opportunities at all levels of skill and experience.

So why is it that Walmart is seen as the Darth Vader of American commerce and communities whenever they propose the location of a store? I’m not a Walmart shopper. I’ve been in a Walmart store two, maybe three times in my entire life. I saw lots of selection and good prices. And I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Walmart is on the “right” side of my above observations, providing consumer choice, value, competition, and opportunity……..all while getting kicked in the teeth for being too good at their concept.

A tale from out West, Wyoming specifically, where a rancher I know describes the 2 to 4 hour drives to the local grocery store whose choices were always limited, lousy, and expensive. A Walmart store opened up, creating job opportunities and bringing an incredible selection of products. My rancher friend is Yale-educated. He’s savvy and he is practical. Up until Walmart opened up out there, he could never get fresh oranges or tangerines. NEVER. Now he gets them every week at a great price. Why isn’t this celebrated? There’s no rip-off here. This is classic free-enterprise capitalism. In fact, everyone’s quality of life has been improved.

We’re told that the Home Depots, the Lowe’s, and the Walmarts of the world simply squeeze the life out of their small neighborhood competitors, killing long-standing community businesses. Here too I beg to differ.

Within four miles of my house there are 2 Home Depots and a Lowe’s. There are also two vintage old-school traditional hardware stores within the same locus. Neither of the two hardware stores have lost a step. In fact, they’ve improved their service and their business, not by weeping and whining, but by paying attention to every customer. No patron gets lost in their aisles. Every patron is approached and asked about their needs. Knowledgeable helpful salespeople make the customer king and the business prospers. Tell me again why Walmart is evil. Tell me again why competition is bad. Tell me a fairy tale.

Walmart makes a huge push to hire returning veterans. That seems pretty sweet to me, given all the challenges facing American military families. The company is funding a multi-billion dollar multi-year investment in American-based manufacturing. Bravo there too. The Children’s Hospitals’ Miracle Networks (of Mass. and Rhode Island) are big beneficiaries of Walmart’s philanthropic efforts. So too Youth Build. So too Straight Ahead Ministries serving Worcester and other urban youth.

How about those senior citizen neighbors who live on limited incomes and who rely on multiple medications for their health………….for them the four dollar generic drug pricing that Walmart offers is the difference between a diminishing and degraded quality of life and a life of self-respect. Is there anyone else in America offering that dignity and self-respect to fellow American citizens? Or how about those families with young growing children where Mom and Dad might bring in a very modest annual income? Not everyone makes $100,000 a year and shops on Boston’s dandy Newbury Street you know. Check out the price of sneakers and jeans for a family with a few kids, all of them outgrowing their clothes once or twice a year. I suspect that those families appreciate Walmart more than anyone else.

All of which raises questions about Walmart’s army of critics. Who are they? What are their motives? Their goals? Do they actually think that Walmart employees and Walmart shoppers are too dumb to handle their own affairs? Do they think that the four-dollar generic medication is some form of exploitation of easily-bewildered simple folk? Or that the young mother and father struggling to make ends meet are really simpletons who need the guidance of “activist experts”?

There is a dangerous conceit here, a condescending arrogance that is hard to fathom. Might we show some faith in the ordinary American. He or she can figure out what’s best for them without bullies and bureaucrats erecting gauntlets against choice. Walmart is not evil. Walmart is just a choice. And for many Americans it’s nice to have that choice around…...........may they go forth and multiply.

 

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