Walmart inches away from evil

Walmart inches away from evil

Photo by Jared C. Benedict

Hurrah for Walmart! I never thought I would be saying that since I have been a Walmart hater for decades. I don't like it. I don't shop there (unless it is an emergency trip to the one in Winfield for a piece or two of camping gear that is urgently needed) and I don't encourage others to shop there either.

When Walmart first began to spread metastatically across the country, there were things to be said in its favor, namely that it mentioned prominently that it was retailing things made in the U.S. This didn't last long. It began to outsource most products from China and brutally driving down the prices that they paid for goods.

As the United States' largest retailer, it opened stores nationwide, mostly in smaller towns and cities where large plots of land were available. Its mass retail advantages allowed it to steamroll small businesses into closing. Mom and pop grocery stores, pharmacies and drug stores, hardware stores and automotive supply stores were driven into bankruptcy. (Just an aside: it wants to do the same to liquor stores if it can persuade the Kansas Legislature to pass enabling legislation promoted by Uncork Kansas.)

In many smaller cities, Walmart quickly became the most important retailer. A wag once said that if a town could get a prison and a Walmart, they could survive and prosper. The social fabric of Main Street, once the economic hub of a town, was destroyed as one business after another closed down. In fairness, easy access to larger urban centers had already begun that process.

While people could see the damage being done, the lower prices were pretty hard to resist. Many shoppers liked the "one stop shopping" aspect. Almost everything was available almost all the time at a reasonable price.

One year at Winfield it was just hotter than blazes, and the kids at our campsite were driving everyone nuts with their frantic running around. I asked one of my fellow Froggy Mountain campers, whom I knew to be a big Walmart fan, to look online to see if Walmart had a large blow-up pool. Not only did they have one, but it was on an end-of-season special sale. Something like 40 bucks. To make a long story short, within two hours, we had the pool inflated and filled, the kids cooled off and worn out and hot adults lounging in two feet of water. It was easy because Walmart was so convenient.

It is hard to argue with the convenience and price of Walmart merchandise. It is not hard to argue with its employment practices. It quickly became the largest employer after the school district in many towns, and it was notorious for low pay, inconvenient scheduling and male-favoring promotion policies.

But two weeks ago, in a move that shocked many, Walmart began to try to change that perception. It announced that this year, it would hike its minimum pay to $9 per hour, far above the Kansas minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. And it promised that next year the wage floor would go up to $10. It said that they were doing this to attract and maintain a high quality work force. Plus it promised to do something about the inconvenient scheduling practices and to try to ensure more gender equity in their promotions.

The increased wage levels at Walmart should ripple through the retail world as employers are forced to match the raises or risk losing valued employees. In addition, the voluntary raising of worker compensation will show the fallacies in arguments that a higher minimum wage will ruin businesses.

One can only say "Well done, Wallyworld!"

I am not sure if I will start going to Walmart. My local Dillons Marketplace is still a friendlier place and much closer. Still I will try to stop badmouthing them and using them as examples of capitalism run amok. Being a corporate good citizen should be rewarded.

While I'm on the subject of Walmart, I'd like to tell you that if you haven't been over to the Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, you ought to try it out. One of the Walton heirs has created a world class art museum right there in the tri-state area. She commissioned Moshe Safde, the Israeli architect who was responsible for designing Exploration Place, to create a spectacular building in what must once have just been a ravine outside Bentonville.

Not only did she create a brilliant building but she filled it with her fantastic collection of American art. (She purposely excluded folk art, I suppose to avoid re-enforcing any stereotypes of the people of the Ozarks). And it's free. I think you need to call for reservations in order to get a convenient slot without waiting, but beyond that it is a joy to visit. If this keeps up, I might have to become a Walton fan.